A Study in Silks by Emma Jane Holloway is described as the adventures of Evelina Cooper, the mystery-solving niece of Sherlock Holmes. I was interested in a society lady detective and foggy Victorian London is a great setting for a mystery novel. (I am in North Carolina! My reading of escapist fiction has exponentially increased! I’m sure these are totally unrelated!) But on the other hand, I made the mistake of reading the Gone With the Wind “sequel” and half a dozen dreadful Pride and Prejudice spinoffs, and it turns out that just because something is inspired by a book I like, doesn’t mean it will be good.
A Study In Silks is so much more than a Holmes spinoff. The story blends the careful detail exposition that makes Arthur Conan Doyle fun to read, and references to Holmes canon that add depth for fans and don’t detract if readers miss them. (Halfway in, Uncle Sherlock returns from Bohemia, where there’s been something of a scandal.) The mystery involves artifacts from Heinrich Schliemann’s Troy dig, a crew of Chinese craftsmen working in secret, code-breaking, a gypsy knife-thrower, and all the mysterious notes and listening at doors that make Victorian novels so lovely.
I hesitate to call this steampunk, because that conjures images of watch parts glued to waistcoats, when what I mean is a Victorian London full of Jules Verne and Space 1888 science. Powerful steam barons run their districts by controlling access to essential energy, that lights and heats homes. Dozens of servants and clockwork appliances keep grand society homes running smoothly. Despite the scientific advances, Victorian mores reign. Evelina, and her heiress friend Imogen, are presented to the queen in preparation for their first London Season, and even while solving the murder, Evelina takes care not to be unchaperoned with any young gentlemen.
“There are twenty-four dances,” Imogen said brightly, examining the dance card once they shed their wraps and put on their dancing slippers. “Twenty-four chances to sort the toads from the automatons.”
About four inches tall, the tiny booklet had a richly colored cover ornamented with gold leaf, as well as a miniature pencil dangling from a cord. The whole works hung from a ribbon loop. What made this Season’s cards unique was the novel way they opened. If one pushed the button to the left, only pages with unclaimed dances fanned out for viewing. The right-hand button showed them all.
Evelina slipped the loop of her card over her wrist. “Do you have a preference for dance partners?”
“I’m partial to the toads. At least they have personality.”
The story is a page-turning adventure with colorful characters in a delightful alternative history. On another level, it’s also a clever satire, describing a world in which corporations, headed by steam barons, control access to essential resources and therefore rule the populace and determine the path of scientific discovery.
A Study in Silks is the first in a trilogy about Evelina Cooper, and I look forward to returning to this likeable cast in steam-powered Victorian London.
This review is based upon an ARC. Thanks! Opinions are my own, and a free book has never stopped me from snarking about awful prose before.