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Thursday, November 7, 2013


Author:  Emma Jane Holloway
Plot Type:  Steampunk Fantasy Romance   
Ratings:  Violence-4; Sensuality-2-3; Humor-3  
Publisher and Titles:  Del Rey
      " The Adventure of the Wollaston Ritual" (free story)
       A Study in Silks (9/2013)
       "The Strange and Alarming Courtship of Miss Imogen Roth" (free story)
       A Study in Darkness (10/2013)
       "The Steamspinner Mutiny" (free story; 11/2013)
       A Study in Ashes (12/2013) (FINAL)  

     This post was revised and updated on 1/20/14 to include a review of  A Study in Ashes, the third and FINAL novel in the trilogy. That review appears at the very end of this post, and it is preceded by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two novels and the three  short stories.


     Here's your chance to start a brand new series and not have to wait a year for the next book. This is a well-written series with a saga-type story line that follows a small group of characters through a crucial period in their lives. I highly recommend it.  


     Here's what the author has to say about her new series (on her web site): "It has something to do with bad dogs in Dartmoor, but why stop there? We have a prince, automatons, sorcerers, sundry pirates, talking mice, a large mechanical caterpillar, castles, ballrooms and murder. And, yes, Holmes and Watson take their turn upon the stage. What type of stories are these? They are one part mystery, two parts adventure and a wee pinch of romance."           

     Holloway has taken Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes character, placed him a steampunk world, and provided a fascinating new twist to "The Hound of the Baskervilles" story. (Click on the story title to go to a full-text free version.) She also gives Sherlock a feisty young niece. Familiar Holmesian characters turn up throughout the series, including Dr. Watson, Holmes' sidekick; Mycroft, his brother; Mrs. Hudson, his landlady; Inspector Lestrade, his Scotland Yard colleague; and Professor Moriarty, his arch enemy. In this series, Sherlock (who was born about 1854) is in his mid-thirties, and he is already famous for his detection skills,

     This is a steampunk fantasy romance series set in London in the late 1880s, and it is also a saga that follows small group of characters over a period of 20 months as they face dramatic changes in their interrelationships, their belief systems, and (for three couples) their love lives. England is under the reign of Queen Victoria, but the real power lies in the hands of the steam barons—greedy businessmen who run the utilities and provide the power for heat and light in all homes and businesses. They also run the banks, the railways, the dockyards, the factories, and the brothels. Everyone, from the poorest stable boy to the wealthiest duke, is terrified of the all-powerful barons, who are called kings and queens of their districts, although people are beginning to hear whispers of a nascent rebellion. Each baron has his or her own district, and each identified by a different color. For example, Jasper Keating is the Gold King, so the streetlights in his district provide gold-colored light, the businesses loyal to him display gold painted steps and exteriors, and his henchmen wear gold jackets. The other districts are Blue, Green, Violet, Scarlet, Gray, and Black (which is a mysterious underground district that no one knows much about—until book 3 of the series).     

     The barons do not allow any other type of power to be used—only their own. For example, a baker can't use a wood fire; he must use coal purchased from the Blue King. "The steam barons ran their companies and, by extension, certain towns and neighborhoods with a combination of bribes and threats. Each baron had one or more streetkeepersbully boys who turned threats into broken bones. A shopkeeper sold what the local steam baron told him to, and painted his steps…to show which baron had his allegiance. If he broke the rules, his gas went out and his pipes ran coldand there was no place to buy his own coal. If he continued in this disobedience, more than his lights would be snuffed out." (A Study in Silks, p. 85) If anyone protests, their power is cut off completely—and so is their social status. This is called being Disconnected, and it's a fate almost worse than death. If a family is Disconnected, their credit is ruined, their bank accounts disappear, and their party invitations stop coming. They find the doors to their social clubs barred to them, and their children are expelled from their schools. Eventually, these families disappear, sinking into obscurity, and their names are never mentioned again. Some people who speak out against the barons are quietly killed, chopped up, and dumped into near-by rivers. Despite the danger, a group of dissenters is forming, calling themselves the Baskerville rebels. As the series develops, this group grows larger, more powerful, and central to the plot. 

     The steam barons crush all attempts at competition by keeping a stranglehold on all supplies of machinery and parts. "The reason for the situation was simple: the steam barons didn't want even a suggestion of competition. Rivals had unsuccessfully tried other inventions to produce power, such as the combustion engine, only to see their companies crumble beneath the steam lobby's economic hammer." (A Study in Silks, p. 79) As the barons have figured out, if you can't get parts, you can't build a machine—and that snuffs out all competition.         

     Most people recognize the existence of magic and magic users, but the barons crush all magic that they find. "With the rise of industry, magicimpossible to measure, regulate, or rulewas banned by Church and state, and especially by the steam barons who controlled so much with their vast wealth. Fortune-tellers and mediums were usually tolerated as amusing if immoral tricksters. Anyone claiming to use real power was subject to jail and probably execution orif there was some suspicion they actually had the Blooda trip to her Majesty's laboratories for testing." (A Study in Silks, p. 19) The barons fear that if magic users can create power to run machines, no one will need the barons' utilities, thus taking money from the barons' coffers. To deter the practice of magic, the barons maintain armies of ruffians to keep the country free of magic users, many of whom have been kidnapped and sent to an experimental laboratory run by sadistic "scientists." 

     The series heroine is an orphan named Evelina Cooper. Her aristocratic mother married an English military officer who died in service before Evelina was old enough to know him. Her mother's parentsthe Holmes family (her mother was the brother of Sherlock and Mycroft) turned their backs on Evelina and her child, so she found a home with her late husband's family, circus performers who happened to have a bit to the Bloodmagical Blood, that is. Evelina's mother soon died, and Evelina was raised by her father's mother and performed as a trapeze artist until her Grandfather Holmes died and her Grandmother Holmes swept in and carried her away to become a lady. Evelina would like to go to college, but her Grandmother insists that she find a husband and live the life of a lady. When Evelina is confronted with a horrible murder at the beginning of book 1, she can't resist investigating. After all, half of her genes come from the Holmes family. The other half of her genes come from her father, and that means that Evelina, too, has the Blood and is always in danger of arrest and possible execution as a magic user. That's why she is so secretive about her magic. But will she be able to keep it a secret much longer?     

     Luckily for readers, the three books are coming just months (instead of the usual years) apart, so you can read one and still remember all of the characters and events of the previous one.                

        PREQUEL SHORT STORY: "The Adventure of the Wollaston Ritual"         
     Click HERE to read this novella in its entirety. The story takes place at Wollaston Academy for Young Ladies just before Evelina and Imogen graduate. The events that occur here directly involve Violet Asterley-Henderson, a supporting character in novels 2 and 3. As the story opens, the Rector of Wollaston discovers an opened grave in his church's cemetery—the burial place of Tom Cannon, a young man whose funeral had been held just a few weeks before. The rector immediately realizes that although the body is gone from the grave, it still lingers near by in an undead form. Obviously someone has used a spell to raise Tom and bring him back to a shambling, zombie life. Who was the magic user? How does Evelina get involved? What is Violet's role? Those questions are answered by the end of this 61-page story. Click HERE to read or download the free story.

     This is a nice background story that introduces Evelina and Imogen, the two leading ladies of the series, but it has little to do with the plot of A Study in Silks. The incident is referred to several times in A Study in Darkness but only in passing. This is the only time a zombie makes an appearance in this series.

            NOVEL 1:  A Study in Silks                
     "Here is the author's summation of the plot: "Evelina Cooper, the niece of the great Sherlock Holmes, is poised to enjoy her first Season in London’s high society, but there’s a murderer to deal with—not to mention missing automatons, a sorcerer, and a talking mouse." The story takes place during ten days in early April of 1888, and the plot kicks off when  a maid is found murdered in the cloakroom of a Lord's home—the one in which Evelina is currently living. It is told in third-person-limited narration, but the perspective alternates among seven characters, all very different types of people. Here is a list of those characters, with annotations that explain their roles in the plot:    

>Evelina Cooper: She is currently living in the home of Lord Bancroft, the father of her best friend, Imogen Roth. She secretly practices magic, principally by binding nature spirits to two clockwork animals: a bird and a mouse. She uses the creatures as her spies. Evelina pines for her sweetheart, Nick, but she is also mightily attracted to Lord Bancroft's son, Tobias. Thus we have the three sides of the romantic triangle for this series. Evelina and Nick are both of the Blood, which means that they are magic users. Unfortunately, their magic has so far proved to be incompatible, so they believe that they are doomed to be apart.   

>Nick (aka Niccolo)—no last name because he's an orphan: He is Evelina's childhood sweetheart, and they still love one another. Nick stayed with the circus after Evelina left, but now the circus is in London and he sneaks into her room for a long-overdue reunion, hoping to rekindle their romance. When that doesn't pan out, he gets involved with one of the story's villains: Dr. Magnus. Always, though, he believes that his first duty is to protect Evelina from harm. 

>Dr. Symeon Magnus: He is a dark sorcerer with many irons in the fire. He wants to grab some of the barons' power, and he plans to do that with his magic. When he discovers that Evelina has extremely powerful, untapped magical talent, he attempts to convince her—first verbally, and then by force—to come away with him. Nick has to step in to protect Evelina.   

>Jasper Keating (aka the Gold King): He is a cold-hearted, merciless, greedy, remorseless predator who will stop at nothing to squelch all opposition to his actions and demands. He has a young daughter, Alice, whom he listens to and adores—his only weakness (at least so far).   

>Lord Bancroft: A pathetic nobleman who wants to advance, but has so far been unsuccessful. He is deep in dangerous trouble as he is the leader of a group that has been attempting to pull a con game on Keating. He and his three fellow plotters have intercepted a shipload of ancient Greek antiques and have removed the gold and precious gems and replaced them with gold-plated silver and glass "jewels." That scheme gradually falls apart as the story progresses and provides one of the primary keys to the conflict: an ancient magical gold box called Athena's Casket. Additionally, Bancroft lost heavily when he invested in a rival power company that was destroyed by the barons. Now he is on the barons' enemies list—to the point that his home is Disconnected at one point in the story. 

>Imogen Roth: She is Evelina's good friend, and they routinely share deep secrets with one another. Imogen knows that Imogen wields magic, but she'll never tell anyone. As the story opens, Imogen is on the verge of her first Season—the string of balls and parties at which she is supposed to attract a suitable husband. When she realizes that the man she wants is her brother's best friend, she can hardly believe it. Neither can her father, who is completely opposed to the relationship.  

>Tobias Roth: He is Imogen's brother and Lord Bancroft's heir. Tobias is the stereotypical rich pretty boBlay who spends his time only on his own amusement, which consists primarily of drinking and womanizing. But Tobias is also a talented maker—a creator of clockwork machines—and he maintains a secret workshop that he shares with three of his like-minded friends. When Lord Bancroft commands Tobias to seduce Evelina to take her mind off solving the maid's murder (and thus keeping Uncle Sherlock out of the investigation), Tobias agrees, but almost immediately he falls for Evelina. That doesn't stop him from making some very bad decisions that eventually drive them apart.    

     The story takes place between April 4 and April 14—10 days, and it is a lengthy 531 pages (approximately 50 pages per day). Obviously there's a lot going on, particularly when a number of events are replayed from varying perspectives. For me, though, the story didn't drag much, except at the very beginning which had to include a lot of world-building. Each of the days is filled with a variety of dangerous and/or romantic events that build in suspense, so the scenes blow by at a compelling, page-turning pace. Most of the characters are well developed, with the exception of the barons, who are all totally evil wretches with absolutely no redeeming character traits. The primary characters have both strengths and flaws (always the sign of a thoughtful author), and it is usually the flaws that lead them to make terrible decisions that have widespread, often heart-breaking consequences. Based on book 1, this looks to be a strong series, and I'm looking forward to book 2. Click HERE to go to a web page with links to excerpts to all three novels in this series.   

     SHORT STORY 2: "The Strange and Alarming Courtship of Imogen Roth"     
     Click HERE to read this free short story in its entry. The main event of this story is the duel that takes place between Buckingham (Bucky) Penner and Captain Diogenes Smythe, both suitors of Imogen Roth. Smythe is an arrogant military man, the son of and earl who tries to come between Bucky and Imogen. Bucky is the son of a wealthy gun-manufacture. He loves to spend his time creating clockwork toys. The duel results when Smythe lies to Imogen about Bucky, and Bucky demands an apology. That duel doesn't end like any duel you've ever read about, but the ending is deliciously satisfying.

     This is a great little story (62 pages) that will give you a fine appreciation of the state of affairs between Bucky and Imogen and between Bucky and Smythe in A Study in Darkness and A Study in Ashes. Click HERE to read or download the free story.  

             NOVEL 2:  A Study in Darkness              
     The second book (another long one at 544 pages) takes place several months later, from early August through November, 1888. Immediately, we learn that Nick has become a pirate—the captain of an air ship called the Red Jack. He has accumulated quite a nice fortune by now as well as a wide reputation amongst both the steam barons and the Baskerville rebels. Because he routinely robs the barons' shipments of clockwork supplies, they want him destroyed. The rebels, though, want his help.

     In the meantime, Evelina is staying with Uncle Sherlock, after having spent several boring months in the country with Grandma Holmes. When a hit man sets off a bomb in Sherlock's apartment, both Sherlock and Evelina want to know who wants Sherlock—or Evelina—killed, injured, or warned. It is at this point that we first meet the Schoolmaster, who will become increasingly important to the series story arc.

    The Whitechapel district of London is the setting for much of the action in this book. In 1888, a killer nicknamed Jack the Ripper by the newspapers, was terrorizing Whitechapel, butchering young women in the dead of night. This serial killer plays a major role in the story.  

     Once again, the story is told in the third person from the perspective of a number of characters:

>Evelina: When Keating (the Gold King) catches Evelina kissing Tobias (who is engaged to Keating's pregnant daughter), he blackmails Evelina into working for him by threatening to ruin her reputation and to injure or kill her Uncle Sherlock. He assigns her the task of spying on the Blue King and locating his maker—the craftsman (or magician) who constructs the Blue King's clockwork weapons. Evelina moves to the run-down and dangerous Whitechapel district, where she is horrified to discover that Magnus is still alive. She becomes his apprentice, even though she fears that using dark magic will eventually endanger her soul. As Evelina learns more and more dark magic from Magnus, she struggles to keep from being drawn completely to the dark side. But if she doesn't call on her dark powers, her life and the lives of her loved ones are in danger.  

>Nick: He is pining for Evelina and gradually getting involved with the Baskerville rebels. He still has Athena's Casket, and with the help of Athena and a flock of sentient ash rooks (huge crow-like birds), his ship is able to out-maneuver any ship the barons send after him. Striker has become Nick's second in command. 

>Imogen Palmer: She is having horrible nightmares about the White Chapel murders (Jack the Ripper's work). She knows what happens even before she reads about them in the newspapers, which frightens her deeply. The Red King is making a play for her hand, but she is in love with Buckingham (Bucky) Penner, even though her father has banned Bucky from their home.

>Tobias Palmer: In order to keep his sisters and mother safe, Tobias marries Alice Keating even though he is in love with Evelina. Tobias is also forced to become Keating's maker—the designer of the Gold King's fearsome clockwork weapons. 

>Alice Keating Palmer: When Tobias rejects her on their wedding night and cancels their European honeymoon, Alice realizes that she has entered into a loveless marriage, but she plans to make the best of it. She is several months pregnant at the time of her marriage.

>Magnus: After almost dying from the injuries he suffered in his battle with Nick and Striker (in book 1), Magnus is still recovering his powers. He is now running a puppetry show in Whitechapel. His life-size automatons present nightly musical programs for the bored and wealthy young sons of aristocratic families. The star of his show is Serafina, the automaton that Tobias thought he destroyed in book 1. Keep your eye on Serafina because she becomes increasingly important to the story line.

>Lord Bancroft: He continues his attempts to gain more power with the rebels with behind-the-scenes financial support. Magnus is still using Bancroft's original automatons as a means of blackmail, and in this book we learn the whole tragic story that explains why Bancroft will do anything to get those automatons back—one automaton in particular.

>Sherlock Holmes: He has several tasks in this novel: to find Evelina, who has dropped out of sight; to outwit the Blue King, who wants him to solve the White Chapel/Jack the Ripper murders; to figure out just how involved his brother Mycroft is with the rebels; to outwit the Gold King's thugs, who are following him everywhere and intercepting his mail.  

     As the plot progresses, the rebellion begins to take form and grow in power; the steam barons claw at each other's throats; and the three young couples (Evelina-Nick; Imogen-Bucky; Tobias-Alice) experience setbacks in their romantic lives.  

     This is another compelling page turner, with a complexly plotted story and well-drawn characters. My only problem with this book is that the plot has several improbable points that serve mostly to move the story in the right direction for the author to resolve the conflict. Characters (usually Evelina) make terrible decisions, make huge leaps in logic based on few facts, and behave in uncharacteristic manners. Some actions and events were somewhat puzzling in their purpose (e.g., Mycroft's bizarre letter writing). All in all, though, Holloway is a great story teller who interweaves her many story threads in an interesting and readable manner. Even with its huge cast of characters, each with an individual story line, the story flows right along, buoyed up by inventive clockwork gadgetry, continuing character development, compelling action scenes, and a constant building of suspense. Although the main characters face some big problems in this book, all of their angst, heartbreak, and fears feed directly into the big finale that comes in book 3. Click HERE to go to a web page with links to excerpts from all three novels in this series.

            SHORT STORY 3:  "The Steamspinner Mutiny"            
     Click HERE to read this free short story in its entirety. The story features Striker in the starring role, and it takes place in a remote seaside village in Cornwall where Striker and the three survivors of the crash of the Red Jack have managed to build a new ships, a steamspinner named Athena (after the air spirit that traveled with Nick). 

     To review: Back at the beginning of the series, Striker was a streetkeeper (hired thug) for one of the steam barons, but eventually he and Nick teamed up to fight against the barons, and Striker became Nick's second in command on the Red Jack.

     Although the Athena is nearly ready for launch, Striker keeps delaying because he hopes that Nick made it out of the Red Jack alive and will be joining them. Unfortunately, Striker has had to hire three new crew members from another wrecked pirate ship, and they don't care anything about waiting for Nick. As soon as the Athena is ready for sail, they try to take over the ship so that they can go off and rescue their former captain.

     The story follows Striker as he deals with the mutiny and finds friendship in a ragged mutt of a dog that wakes him up in a thunderstorm after he is hit by lightning and survivesadding to the myth of his magical good luck.

     Striker has always been an interesting character, with his rough-and-tough attitude and his strange appearance: “He’d sewed the scraps of metal onto the long duster himself, and had taken care to cover every available inch. It was both armor and a portable supply chest—gears and plates and any other parts a maker might use but were hard to find, and wearing them made them harder to steal. It also made the coat too heavy for most to even lift, let alone wear, from daybreak to dark.” Striker loves Nick like a brotherthe first real friend he has ever hadand he just can't bring himself to believe that Nick is gone forever. This is a nice little story that provides additional depth to a quirky continuing character in the series.

             NOVEL 3:  A Study in Ashes             
     The final book is another hefty one (672 pages—70 chapters), bringing the trilogy to its inevitable climactic conclusion and providing a satisfactory resolution to the main conflicts. The events take place between mid-September and early November of 1889, a period in which the Baskerville revolution builds to its peak, causing the steam barons to become frantic with panic.  

>Evelina: As the story opens, Evelina is still grieving for Nick, who went down with his burning airship at the end of book 2. At this point, Evelina is studying at the Ladies’ College of London, where she is challenging the all-male chemistry professors because they won’t let her use their laboratories. Jasper Keating has magically imprisoned Evelina at the college by binding her with a pair of silver bracelets that act as a GPS locator as well as the source of a painful shock if she ventures off campus. Evelina is at Keating’s beck and call—essentially, his magical pet. She isn’t allowed to contact any of her friends of relatives—not even Uncle Sherlock—but Sherlock is clever, and he finds a way to get messages to his hapless niece. As the story progresses, Evelina (with some outside assistance) escapes from Keating, but finds herself in even worse trouble. All through this book—and especially in the later chapters—Evelina fights against the pull of her dark magic, fearful that she will be sucked into its grasp and never be able to escape.

>Tobias and Alice: The couple has a new baby—a son named Jeremy, and they’re living in their own home in London. Tobias is still working as Keating’s maker, but he’s having second thoughts about building all of Keating’s war machines. His relationship with Alice has improved greatly, but he still pines sometimes for Evelina and regrets that he didn’t stand up for their love.

>Lord Bancroft: He is up to his old tricks—playing one side against the other to his greatest gain. He is still helping the rebels, but always in a way in which he will get maximum credit (and a better chance at a powerful position in the new government).

>Imogen: She is still trapped in her supernatural nightmare, wasting away and beginning to lose her grip on reality. She must pull herself together and figure out a way to escape, but she requires help from outside to do that.

>Sherlock Holmes and his brother, Mycroft: Both men are openly working for the rebels, each in a different manner. Even though Sherlock bases his investigations on cold, hard logic, he turns to the supernatural world as he plans to rescue Evelina and take a major step towards defeating the steam barons.

>Jasper Keating: The wily and cold-hearted Gold King is trying his best to be the only surviving steam baron, and he does everything in his power to achieve his desires—no matter how despicable those actions might be.

>Mr. Juniper (aka Professor James Moriarty): This snake in the grass befriends Evelina at the College, but can she really trust him?

     There are at least two more key characters, but I can’t name them here or summarize their activities because that would result in spoilers that would ruin the suspense for you.

     As the rebels formulate their plans, they realize that they don’t have enough coal to power their clockwork war machinery, so they must find a way to rescue Evelina so that she can use her magic to provide the necessary power. But where is Evelina? Can she be rescued in time?

     In this book, we learn all of the secrets we could only guess at in the previous books and novellas: What is the true identity of the Schoolmaster? What is the significance of the name “Baskerville” and what is its connection with Conan Doyle’s “Baskerville” story? What part, if any, does the Baskerville hound play in the story? Will the rebels defeat the steam barons? Will the steam barons kill one another? Who will be the next king of England? Will Evelina ever find true love? Will Imogen escape back to reality and to Bucky? What will Poppy’s role be in Imogen’s situation? Will Lord Bancroft achieve his desires for social standing and political power? Will Tobias find happiness in his marriage, and will he make peace with his father? Who runs the Black Kingdom, and how do they become a key part of the revolution? Whew!  No wonder this book is so long!

     This story gets a lot more woo-woo than the others, but the magical elements are all tied directly and believably to the main plot. Each character’s individual story line moves along at a compelling pace as the revolution boils over into a fantastic battle bursting with a nightmarish assemblage of clockwork war machines (including a huge yellow mechanized caterpillar with red shoes, a vicious people-chopping monstrosity, and others of equal savagery).

     There is a point about halfway through the book (at the end of chapter 32) when this book probably should have ended, with a fourth book beginning with the next chapter (33). This chronicle is so lengthy and complex that its sheer size and scope become almost overwhelming, not to mention that the suspense builds to nearly unbearable levels. The story line begs for a break at this mid point, a chance for the reader to take a breath, contemplate past events, and speculate on future possibilities.  

     Even with its smattering of weak elements, this is a terrific series, filled with great characters, creative clockwork machines, inventive story lines, lots of action and suspense, and an all-around satisfying resolution. All of the story lines, though, are not resolved, so I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from this fictional steampunk world in the form of future novellas and/or novels. Click HERE to go to a web page with links to excerpts from all three novels in this series.

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