A Study in Silks by Emma Jane Holloway

Review by Chris Redmond

This book by Emma Jane Holloway is 549 pages long, and Sherlock Holmes makes his first appearance on page 448. Obviously, then, it is Sherlockian only in a secondary way, though it is made clear almost from the beginning that the principal character, Evelina Cooper, is Holmes's niece. Caught up in mysterious events including several murders, she does her best to apply Holmes's methods, make deductions, and save her adopted family from scandal and disaster — a project that, it becomes clear, is well beyond her powers.

A Study in Silks is set in a Victorian London with a few unusual features, although most of the social circumstances and details of daily life are exactly what we all know, or think we know, from both history and fiction. There are two differences of importance. One is the ingenious supposition that the city is in thrall to a league of half a dozen “steam barons,” tycoons who monopolize the supply of heat and light, and illuminate their various districts of London in gold, red, or blue to show off their domains. The other departure from dull Victorian truth is that in Holloway's world, magic exists, although only a small number of people practice it (and they risk burning at the stake, or incarceration for life in the royal laboratories, if they are caught using their powers). Not too surprisingly, Evelina is one of the magical few.

The complicated events that unfold involve the death of a housemaid, the theft of a shipment of automatons (robots), the diversion of a shipment of gold and jewelled antiquities, a rivalry for Evelina's romantic favours, a sorcerer's attempt to gain control of a powerful device, and a good deal more. As the book progresses, the reader wonders how all these threads can possibly be untangled in time, and as it ends, the answer is made clear: they can't. Sure enough, A Study in Silks is the first volume of what is to be a trilogy. The author has imagined a world and a plot so vast and messy that they cannot be contained in a single book, even a very long one, and has declined what one might think would be a writer's obligation, to divide even the longest narrative into self-contained book-length chunks. The reader who struggles through to the end is thus likely to be disappointed.

However, there are many delights along the way, including picturesque villains; delicately beautiful devices that are a marriage of technology and magic; the elaborate schemes of the steam barons and the aristocrats who resist the rule of these nouveaux riches; and, perhaps best of all, a succession of scenes with convincing, arousing, and still tasteful descriptions of the physical and mental sensations that grip Evelina and her young men as they progress from total innocence to passionate awareness.

Sherlock Holmes, when he appears, does very little to solve the outstanding mysteries — perhaps that's scheduled to happen in subsequent volumes — and mostly contents himself with making testy observations to Evelina about how solutions are seldom simple and sometimes impossible. He does manage to get himself shot in the arm, and inevitably Watson takes good care of him, going so far as to threaten to keep Holmes in bed at the point of a gun if that is what it takes to ensure his recovery.

The second and third volumes may turn out to be brilliant or they may be tiresome beyond telling. This first volume is sufficiently clever and interesting that I am surprised it has not been much more discussed among Sherlockians since it entered print in October 2013. Perhaps Sherlockians feel that magic heroines are ipso facto disqualified from being taken seriously. If that's the explanation, somebody is missing an amusing but infuriating read.