Is Our Writers Learning? A Study in Silks by Emma Jane Holloway (#SFWApro)

A Study in Silks is the first in a trilogy (The Baskerville Affair) that pits Sherlock Holmes’ niece Evelina Cooper against the corrupt Steam Barons controlling alt.Victorian England. It’s a great set-up and the execution is good enough I wish the book had been better.
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The World: It’s the 1880s, and England’s technology is accelerating in the usual steampunk way. The big divergence is that the country’s major manufacturers and energy companies (coal, steam, electricity) have united as the Steam Barons to control industry, and thereby the nation. Cross them and your house is suddenly without power, light or heat, and you become a social outcast because being nice to you would really piss off the Barons. New technologies and magic are suppressed as a potential threat to the status quo.
The (Back) Story : Evelina grew up in the circus with her father’s side of the family before joining her mother’s side (the Holmeses) and entering society. Now of age to start husband-hunting (though she’d much rather go to college) she’s staying with her best friend Isabel Bancroft and her father, Lord Bancroft. Bancroft has some shadowy dealings in the past and a lot of ambition for the future: Plenty of powerful people aren’t happy about the Steam Barons’ dominance, and Bancroft anticipates leading the revolution. Evelina is dependent on his good will to get a Season, and so hides that she’s both a skilled engineer and has some magical ability. With Bancroft, Steam Baron Keating and the sorcerer Magnus all pursuing a magical MacGuffin, an innocent girl winds up dead and Evelina starts investigating. Complications include Nicolo, a friend from the circus who wants to be a much closer friend, and Bancroft’s son Tobias, who wouldn’t mind getting close to Evelina himself.
What I Learned
•Despite reading that steampunk is done with English settings, it obviously isn’t, which bodes well for Questionable Minds. And I like that the biggest changes are political more than technological.
•Posing the protagonist on the cover doing nothing makes for a dull cover. Nothing about the cover screams Buy Me or even gives a hint what it’s about beyond “steampunk” (I wouldn’t have picked it up if I hadn’t found it on sale). Of course since this kind of posing seems to be standard for urban fantasy covers, maybe it works for most people, but I hate it.
•Being a strong female character is less important than having actual character (see related discussion from Liz Berger here and me here). This is what sunk the book for me: Evelina’s a strong, competent woman with an impressive skill set (mage, detective, tinkerer) but her personality’s generic. She’s the young girl with dreams in a world that only allows her one dream: Marry well. I’ve seen that everywhere from Disney princesses to Regency romances and Holloway adds absolutely nothing to the template.
It’s easy to forget but Sherlock Holmes isn’t memorable just because of his brilliant detective skills. What makes him last when Martin Hewitt, Professor Van Dusen and countless other Victorian detectives faded from memory is that Holmes is also an amazing character: Eccentric, arrogant, obnoxious, obsessive. Evelina doesn’t have a fraction of that. And despite her circus background she’s ultimately far too comfortable in society (and far too dependent on Bancroft’s good will) to go too far outside the socially approved envelope.
•Gypsies deserve more respect. Niccolo is Roma and Roma have a complex culture (just like most peoples) but Holloway writes him as if it meant nothing but “exotic hunk of man-meat.” Which was standard back when I was a teenager, but I think that approach is way past its expiration date.
(Cover art is uncredited in the book; all rights to image with current holder).

9 Comments

Filed under Is Our Writers Learning?, Reading, Sherlock Holmes

9 responses to “Is Our Writers Learning? A Study in Silks by Emma Jane Holloway (#SFWApro)

  1. Liz

    Exotic hunk of man meat indeed. Sounds like an interesting concept overall, but using stock characters is enough to turn me off any book. It’s how I felt about Thieftaker.by DB Jackson.

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