Review: A Study in Silks by Emma Jane Holloway

[TW: racism]

I’ve been in the mood for neo-Victorian (Steampunk, Gaslight Fantasy, floriography) things lately, there must be something about winter that brings out a hunger for stories about tea and repression or non-fiction about pretty flowers. On second thought, that just might be winter finally getting to me. Once the holidays and my birthday are over, I’ve just about had enough of winter.

A Study in Silks is one of those books where I read the back cover and rolled my eyes because of course the protagonist is related to Sherlock Holmes, yes, of course. How does anyone solve mysteries in London in the Victorian era if they don’t call upon Sherlock Holmes? Not even the blurb from Jacqueline Carey could sway me in this. However, I was intrigued by the mention of sorcery, I like a little magic with my clockwork, so I was like “Eh, it can’t be worse than some of the other books I’ve read recently,” and bought it.

As it turns out, A Study in Silks was one of those pleasant surprises overall.

A Study in Silks is set in a Victorian London ruled by a council of steam barons, who have a monopoly on mechanical power. The main character is Evelina Cooper, a woman who grew up in a traveling circus until her Grandmama Holmes plucked her from that life and thrust her into Society to be raised as a proper lady. Now living under the roof of Lord and Lady Bancroft, Evelina dreams of attending college while her friend Imogen prepares for her first Season in London. What no one under Bancroft’s roof knows, however, is that Evelina has secretly mastered magic that can power machines, , but, with the practice of magic banned throughout the Empire and suspected magic users sent for a long stay in Her Majesty’s laboratories, this is something Evelina doesn’t dare breathe a word of to anyone, but, when a murder occurs under Bancroft’s roof, it’s up to Evelina to solve the case without it hurting her friend, if she can only keep thoughts of Lord Bancroft’s handsome son and the dashing trick-rider from her past at bay.

I read some other reviews of this book and I think some people are under the impression that this is meant to be more of a mystery story (probably because it name-drops Holmes) but this isn’t the case. There is a mystery to solve, but it’s definitely not the focus of the book. Think of it as more of a gaslight fantasy (akin to something like The Parasol Protectorate, which I need to read) with romance and a bit of mystery and you have A Study in Silks. It’s not a very substantial read, but I wouldn’t call it light and fluffy either. Still, I would say it definitely falls in the “fun” category, and is best enjoyed wrapped up in a blanket with a warm drink (and by a “warm drink” I mean tea, obviously, always tea).

One thing I liked about this book is that there are a lot of plotlines happening at once (not all of which are resolved by the end of this book) you have the big overarching plot of the murder that quickly balloons into a search for a mysterious artifact, but you also have Imogen searching for a husband and Evelina worrying about her future, you also have Lord Bancroft’s son, Tobias, who is anxious to stretch his creative muscles through tinkering, something that the steam barons have forbidden, and you even get a glimpse of the life of one of the steam barons, Jasper Keating, and his ambitions. These are just a few of the plotlines that run through the book and they aren’t even the most important ones. In some books, it can be difficult to keep track of plots and characters, but in this case I found that all the various plots weave together nicely even if most of them aren’t resolved at the end (obviously this is where sequels come in).

The characters themselves were interesting to a point. Evelina is smart but comes across as being way too dependent on her uncle, constantly saying things like “if only Uncle Sherlock were here”. Tobias is a bored aristocrat looking to stretch his creative muscles, Nick, Evelina’s Romani friend from the circus, is trying to reconnect with her and somehow ends up caught in the whole mess, and then there’s the mysterious Dr. Magnus, who seems to have his fingers in a lot of pies, Jasper Keating, who, as a steam baron, definitely has his fingers in a lot of pies (plus a daughter, Alice, who is definitely more cunning than she lets on) and then there’s Lord Bancroft himself, who is hiding his share of secrets, They’re not what I would call very complex, but I wouldn’t call them flat either.

I also like how Evelina’s relationships with both her grandmothers and the friendship she shares with Imogen are just as important to her (if not moreso) than the relationships she has with men. She is motivated to shield Lord Bancroft’s family from scandal for Imogen’s sake, and both her grandmothers played pivotal roles in her childhood and young adulthood (Grandmother Cooper taught her how to use magic, whereas Holmes taught her how to function in Society). Even though she spends a significant amount of time with one or the other of her love interests, Imogen’s friendship remains constant, and she even accompanies Evelina on her investigation at Imogen’s insistence.

In terms of the romance…yay….a love triangle, how original, although there are a couple twist that make this tired old trope at least somewhat interesting. I still hate love triangles though, and I wish they would go away.

Something that also surprised me about this book was that there are POC characters who a) are not servants/working class and b) a major part of the plot, of the major characters, Nick is Romani, Magnus is black, Jasper Keating’s “enforcer” Striker, is brown. Unfortunately this is where the book falls flat on its face, and not just for the (period appropriate) racist language. Dr. Magnus in particular is very much “othered” (not only for his skin but is use of sorcery) and seems to become progressively more antagonistic towards the end of the novel. Nick and the Coopers are “magical POCs” who pretty much embody every single Roma stereotype (although, as the narrative says, they have little choice in the matter). There’s also that old chestnut of the protagonist inheriting magical abilities from a parent of colour. There are also characters of colour who basically exist to be killed to further the plot (including the murder that started the whole mess, if the victim’s “almond” eyes are any indication, as well as a bunch of Chinese workers). Although Evelina at least expresses some desire to see their killers brought to justice, even though, due to the racism of the time, there appears to be little chance of that. On the one hand, it’s always nice to see more authors not completely erase POCs from these kinds of stories, on the other hand, it would be nice if more of them didn’t kick the bucket by the book’s end.

In sum, racefail notwithstanding, A Study in Silks was a pleasant surprise and if you like your gaslight fantasy with romance and a little mystery, it’s not a bad read.

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