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REVIEW:  A Study in Silks by Emma Jane Holloway

REVIEW: A Study in Silks by Emma Jane Holloway

A Study in Silks Emma Jane Holloway

Dear Ms. Holloway:

Whoever wrote the blurb copy for this book totally was aiming for me:

Evelina Cooper, The Niece of the Great Sherlock Holmes is poised to enjoy her first Season…But there’s a murder to deal with, not to mention missing automatons, a sorcerer and a talking mouse.

Though the above drew me in, the tone of the book was completely different. I came in expecting humor and snark similar to Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, but found that the first 20 or so pages didn’t really grab me.

So I put it down for awhile and only resorted to reading it when I found myself in a situation where it was the only thing I hadn’t yet read. I’m glad I gave it another chance. I think this has the potential to be my new favorite fantasy series, depending on what happens in the next book. However, although there are really strong romantic elements, and some lovely witty flirtatious banter, this is not a romance and nor should one read it as such.

Evelina Cooper, niece of Sherlock Holmes, is about to enter her first London Season, but as companion to her friend the aristocratic Imogen Roth. Evelina’s low-class background as a former circus performer is hidden from Society, as is the fact that she is a magic user. This afterall, is a time when those accused of magic are sentenced to be guests of Queen Victoria’s Laboratories.

I really liked the friendship between Evelina and Imogen. Too often, I find that fantasy books with female protagonists rarely feature positive relationships with other women that are not sexualized. But this is not some teenage cheesy BFF situation either. Both Evelina and Imogen have their secrets and they keep them from each other, which helps ratchet up the story’s tension nicely. Evelina’s low social class background is of no concern to Imogen and yet their non-issue of it only serves to highlight the strong class divide between them.

Evelina is sneaking around one night when she discovers workmen removing a mysterious trunk from the Roth household. When the workmen take a peek against orders, Evelina gets a glimpse of a dismembered human-like automaton, which eventually goes missing. Meanwhile a servant is murdered that evening. Evelina senses magic at the murder scene and decides to investigate in order to help the Roth family avoid scandal. However, Imogen’s father, Lord Bancroft sees Sherlock Holmes’s niece more as threat and secretly orders Imogen’s brother, Tobias to seduce Evelina. However, what makes it more problematic is the fact that Tobias has recently started noticing his little sister’s friend in an entirely different manner, and she, him. But the appearance of her childhood circus friend, the Indomitable Niccolo, or Nick, as Evelina calls him, causes even more complications. Though sparks and elemental spirits literally appear when Nick and Evelina get close (because of the wild magic in both of their blood) the social class gap is too wide for them to ever even acknowledge an acquaintance in public.

The tension sizzled between Tobias and Evelina but was also there between Nick and Evelina, yet felt so very different with each one. You could feel that the chemistry changed depending on the personalities in the picture. Both Nick and Tobias are appealing, and very human with their own foibles and mistakes, and yet it seems clear at the end of the book who Evelina should end up with (though I suppose we shall see for sure in future books).

Each of the supporting characters were delightfully memorable. I liked this version of Sherlock and kept picturing Benedict Cumberbatch with a soft spot for a niece, which made him that much more likable from the asshole genius in the books. I liked the villain, Dr. Magnus a lot. Although at times, the characterization wavered into dark cloak-mustached-cartoon villain territory, Magnus consciously played into the archetype for his own purposes, which some how made him seem even more frightening. Other notable characters included the scheming fallen dreamer Lord Bancroft, Imogen’s father who is nearly ruined by the vicious Steam Baron Jasper Keating, a drama to which Evelina is unfortunately largely sidelined because of the social restrictions of her gender. Even supporting characters with no names, like bakers that Evelina runs into after defeatingsome of nasty magic, are given hints of personality that seem to echo beyond the pages that they have.

The worldbuilding is meticulous. It felt kind of like if Naomi Novik did steampunk magic Victorian London. Since this is the Season in steampunk Victorian London, there are fashionable dresses that mimic automaton brass gears with golden swirls and witty flirtations that take place around tea. Moreover, the political intrigue is delicious. The Steam Barons basically control everything in England, and their reach is only growing because of their monopoly on power. The glittering balls of the Season seem mere gloss on a Victorian England that is on the verge of civil upheaval because of the power of the Steam Barons. This is not a steampunk book that just romanticizes dawn of the technological age, but touches upon the immense social disruptions that came along with new industry. There are new social powers to be reckoned with by the old hierarchy, and if they don’t the entire edifice is on the verge of collapsing.

And although I put this book down originally because I thought it wasn’t funny, I realized it’s because the blurb made me expect something less understated. There is definitely some nice humor in this book, but subtle and pleasingly dry in that understated English way.

Evelina nodded. “The bigger the machine, the more important the merchant.” She couldn’t help thinking of Lord Bancroft’s stolen automatons, and wondering one more time what was so important about them.
Imogen looked impressed. “This one is plenty big. I wonder who owns it?”

“Someone who’s putting it there simply for show. It’s rusty.”

“Does that mean it will leave stains on my skirts while it mashes me into the dust?”

“Only if it catches you.”

“How sporting.”

Despite my reading pleasure with most of this book, I didn’t like how Evelina seemed to be a victim of events towards the end, rather than a protagonist. This book reads more like a supernatural detective mystery, hearking back to the old Sherlock Holmes stories (not surprisingly). And in this particular mystery, this wanna be detective protagonist is not the one who figured everything out. She had bits and pieces of the story, but it took her famous uncle to solve the mystery. Although Evelina did the investigating and played crucial protagonist-expected roles throughout the book, I’m surprised she didn’t contribute more towards the end. I almost feel like the story would have had her take a more active role if she were a male protagonist. You could argue that that Evelina is young and still learning to use her abilities and powers. Still, I can’t imagine Luke Skywalker not being the one to make the important shot into the Death Star or Harry Potter not discovering the truth about the Sorcerer’s Stone. Or you could argue that she’s sidelined by the gender (and social class) restrictions in the society she lives in, which is a logical argument, but as the story is a fictional construct, I felt a bit cheated as a reader that this protagonist didn’t do more. I’m just hoping Evelina does more in the next book.

Although I appreciate the mostly is nuanced representation of social class and hints of a racially diverse Victorian England than is usually represented in fiction. I had to sigh in exasperation when the only Asians that appeared were kidnapped immigrants that were there to basically add to the body count. I just felt like it was this book’s version of the black-character-dies-first-movie-trope (though the first person to die here is a white woman). Of course, Nick is a darker-skinned gypsy and he is a rather heroic love interest so I guess that balances things, but that still doesn’t quite quell my aggravation. The author did so well at world building and other character building that the use of this common trope seemed to stand out even more.

Despite some minor misgivings, I did enjoy this book. I couldn’t stop thinking about the world and characters after I finished reading. This was mostly everything I could want it to be, and I definitely look forward to the next book.



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REVIEW:  Fall Hard by JL Merrow

REVIEW: Fall Hard by JL Merrow

Dear JL Merrow:

Kaetrin: I haven’t read everything in your backlist, but I have read quite a bit of it and it is usually successful for me.  So I was keen to read your newest release Fall Hard (which title my brain kept insisting on reversing).

Willaful: Merrow’s name is one of the few that would get me to pick up a book with the word “Viking” associated with it! My experiences with romance Vikings have not been good ones.

Kaetrin:  Fall Hard isFall-Hard told from the first person POV of Dr. Paul Ansell, a historian who teaches at the Snorri Sturlusen Institute of Icelandic Studies.  A year prior to when the story starts, Paul was involved in an accident in which his lover Sven (who was American and not Icelandic despite the name) died and he was seriously injured.  Paul has been recuperating with his sister in Britain and returns to Iceland to take up his teaching post again, continue his research in to Egil Skallagrimsson (a hero/villain from an ancient saga) and to find answers about the accident he can’t remember.  All of his previous time in Iceland has been forgotten as a result of retrograde amnesia resulting from the accident.  In Iceland, he meets up with a local man, Viggo Gudrunarsson, a man he has clearly known before and they quickly embark upon a fairly whirlwind romantic relationship.

Willaful: First off, I was impressed with how setting is used in this book. Iceland is not only depicted with loving care, but its culture and history are absolutely essential to the plot.

Merrow cleverly uses Paul’s amnesia as an effective way of getting in local color without sounding like a guidebook. He’s relearning and re-experiencing everything, so it’s natural for him think about or comment on it. Like the dark lava bread:

“The sweet flavour and cakey texture of the bread tantalised me with almost-memories: I’d eaten this fresh-baked, not from a supermarket, I was certain, and it had been much better.”

Bread is such an meaningful cultural reference because pretty much every nation has their own distinct version; my nephew still brings us back pan hallulla when he visits Chile.  Knowing what their bread is like makes the place come alive for me.  Throughout the book, I really felt the appeal of Iceland, which is far more than just hot Vikings.

Kaetrin:  I loved the Icelandic setting.  I found myself stopping to Google various places and landmarks.  It almost felt like Iceland, or at least Reykjavik and surrounds were a character in the book.  There was such a strong sense of place.   I think it added to the mystery aspect of the story too (especially with the barren lava field landscape which is a large part of the country)  – Paul was discovering Iceland again and the reader was taken on the journey into the unknown.  My sense was that a lot of research into Iceland and the sagas had been done because it felt authentic and seamless in the book, with no large info-dumps or travelogues. Because it is told in the first person and because Paul has forgotten Iceland and the people he knew there, the reader discovers everything as he does.  He is naturally suspicious – almost everyone knows more about him than he does and he is sure there are things people are not telling him.

Willaful: I also enjoyed many aspects of Paul’s character. He’s a serious scholar, very atypical for a romance hero. He has significant relationships with women. Being gay is integral to his life — and how cool to read about Pride in Iceland! — but his life isn’t all about being gay.

Except that it’s obviously an m/m romance, I found the book hard to categorize, with its strong mystery element. Would you call it a Gothic romance? The overall tone with Paul’s confusion and uncertainty has a very gothic feel to me. In fact, Paul’s role in the story, and both the beginning and the ending, strongly evoke classic Hitchcock films.

Kaetrin:  I haven’t read much Gothic romance so I’m not sure I know enough about it to make any comment on that.  But I’d say it was definitely more of a mystery/romance rather than a romantic suspense.  There was a strong moodiness to the text which fit the mystery theme really well and the first person narrative only added to that. And I agree with you that there was a Hitchcockian (Hitchcockeseque?) feel to the story.

Willaful:  Let’s go with Hitchcockesque, just because it looks so filthy! On reflection, I think I’d call the book a psychological thriller, except the romantic element is much greater than you’d expect, and the thrilling element weaker. I didn’t find it entirely successful in any of the genres, though.

Kaetrin:  I enjoyed the romance and I liked the mystery up until the big reveal where things felt a little underdeveloped for me.  What happened “before” remained a little too vague and unformed, even by the end. I still had some questions about what Viggo and Paul had been to each other and I felt the explanation for Viggo’s tattoos suggested something other than what was actually the case. (May I also add that Viggo’s Yggdrasil (tree of life) tattoo sounded like it was particularly painful to get, the taproot ending where it did.  Ouchie.)

I found Sven difficult to know, which was both good and bad.  Good, because it meant that I had no investment in Paul’s relationship with him and therefore no trouble buying into the romance between Viggo and Paul. But bad, because the big reveal at the end was kind of a letdown for me – the set up led me toward something more exotic perhaps.  But then, I’m usually pretty bad at mysteries.

Willaful:  I agree that after so much suspense, the ending was a little tame. I was puzzled by what’s going on the secondary characters, Mags and Alex. There seemed to be many signs that Mags was interested in Alex — blushing and so on — yet later she encourages Paul to be with him.

Kaetrin: I took it to be a way of the author keeping things mysterious. Most of the characters were suspicious in some ways.  I think that’s part of the reason why the big reveal didn’t work super well for me – I wondered why the other characters had acted oddly.

Willaful: Yes, exactly. There are many threads that were intended to create suspicion and are simply never explained.

I’m afraid the mysterious elements badly backfired with me: the first time I read the book, I was so mistrustful of everyone, I couldn’t relax into the romance or get attached to any particular relationship, because I had no idea how it would turn out. Basically, it worked too well as a thriller for me to enjoy it as a romance. Everything seemed suspicious — Paul even started to wonder if his sister is hiding things from him. The atmosphere was so sinister, I kept waiting tensely for something awful to happen. And then the ending didn’t really justify all the tension.

On the second read, I was able to enjoy the romance and see how charming Viggo is, with his soulful music, crinkly eyes and “born to smile” face. He and Paul are from very different worlds in more ways than one, but they complement each other.

Kaetrin:  I didn’t have trouble with the mystery interfering with the romance – as I knew it was a romance, I trusted there would be a HEA and whatever resolution there was to the mystery aspects, it would not interfere with it. I did definitely feel the connection between Viggo and Paul and I believed in their happy ending – even if I would have liked a little more about what they planned for the future – was Paul going to stay in Iceland permanently?  (Not that I needed to know it for the story to be complete – I just wanted to).

Willaful:  It didn’t even occur to me to wonder about that. I guess the book ended on a note that made me feel confident they’d stay together. Although I would only have given it a C after my first read, the second one brought it up to a B.

Kaetrin:  I normally read for the romance but I found myself engaged by the mystery as well here; the book pulled me forward as I tried to puzzle it out. Like I said before, I’m really bad at mysteries so I didn’t work it out and unfortunately, the resolution did fall a little flat.  But despite some reservations about the early part of their relationship, the romance between Viggo and Paul did work for me and I was immersed right til the end.  I also appreciated the epilogue here which helped to round out the story and solidify the HEA.  I liked this one very much. I give it a B.

Kaetrin & Willaful


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