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'A Study in Silks' a fun steampunk romance

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'A Study in Silks' by Emma Jane Holloway

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The Spokane County Library District continues to provide excellent resources for people in the greater Spokane area who read ebooks on Kindles, laptops or other devices. The library's OverDrive digital collection offers ebooks and audiobooks in a wide range of genres in several popular file formats. Their fantasy collection, in particular, has something for everybody from die-hard sword and sorcery buffs to fans of paranormal romance.

"A Study in Silks" by Emma Jane Holloway is a particularly fun mashup of mystery, fantasy and steampunk set in an alternate version of Victorian England where London is controlled by local crime bosses called the Steam Barons who ruthlessly run the local utilities. They use their monopolies on practically all aspects of manufacturing to force the ruling class to conform to their wills. Magic works in Holloway's world, but it has been outlawed and people who are suspected of having arcane powers are either burned at the stake or dragged off to a secret government laboratory and never seen again.

The protagonist Evelina Cooper is a former circus acrobat who is good both at inventing clockwork devices and using magic. She is also the niece of the famous consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. This makes her uniquely qualified to investigate a murder that happens at the house where she has been living with her best friend Imogen. Soon, Evelina finds herself caught up in the middle of a conspiracy to defeat the Steam Barons that involves numerous crimes that are seemingly unrelated at first.

While Evelina pokes her nose into other people's business and tries to protect herself from an evil sorcerer, she also has more mundane concerns. It is the beginning of the social season for England's nobility and one of the Steam Barons arranged to have her presented before Queen Victoria as an attempt to bribe Holmes. This causes Evelina to get caught up in some of the more familiar trappings of a period romance as she and Imogen attend functions where they are supposed to try to find husbands. Evelina is soon caught up in a mostly chaste love triangle with her old friend Niccolo, a circus performer with wild magical talents he doesn't know how to control, and Imogen's brother Tobias who shares her interest in inventing new mechanical devices.

Both Tobias and Niccolo are off limits to Evelina for different reasons. Tobias is the son and heir of a viscount, which means he could never marry her because she is an orphan without a title or a large dowry. She can't be intimate with Niccolo because their magic powers interact with each other in weird ways, such as generating colorful light shows, and their secrets might be discovered by people who wouldn't mind seeing them executed. Niccolo is invaluable to her investigation, but that isn't enough for Evelina to want to risk being with him on a permanent basis.

Toward the end of the novel, Holmes arrives on the scene and uses what Evelina was able to figure out using some of his methods to put together all the pieces she hadn't worked out yet. He also figures out several things that are inconvenient for Evelina. The last 20 percent of the story is a really fun Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pastiche as Holmes and Watson interact with Holloway's characters and try to bring all the villains to justice.

On Amazon, Kevin Hearne, the author of the exceptionally good Iron Druid urban fantasy series, said "This book has just about everything: magic, machines, mystery, mayhem, and all the danger one expects when people’s loves and fears collide. I can’t wait to return to the world of Evelina Cooper!"

Based on his enthusiasm, it was practically a no-brainer to download the book and give it a try. Hearne and the other fantasy authors who raved about the book were definitely onto something, because it is really fun getting immersed in Evelina's world. Male readers may be disappointed by the sheer amount of time devoted to things such as period clothing and how young ladies were expected to behave in the Victorian era, but the book really does have just about everything.

There are rousing action sequences, a plot involving art forgery on a major scale, a fun subplot about Tobias and his friends using a machine they built to disrupt a bad performance of an opera and some great stuff about magical robots with lousy attitudes. Evelina can't project streams of fire at bad guys like Harry Dresden, but she is able to use her intelligence and her supernatural talents to get herself out of jams at key points in the story instead of having to wait around for Niccolo or somebody to come rescue her.

Evelina herself is a wonderful character. She is very believable as a young woman who doesn't have much practical experience with young men as she tries to sort out how she feels about Niccolo and Tobias, but she is also strong and capable without being "plucky" or "tomboyish" or falling into any of the usual cliches. Young adult readers may appreciate the way she learns a few things about life and love along the way. Older readers will probably find her quite appealing too.

The second book in the series, "A Study in Darkness" may be more some readers' speed because it involves things like pirates with airships and an absolutely hilarious fight scene at Holmes' Baker Street apartment, but the first book is crucial because of all the background information it provides about the recurring characters and their delightful steampunk setting. Male readers may have to grin and bear it through some of the parts that are more romance-oriented, but they may be pleasantly surprised to find out that they like all that stuff about fancy dresses and dealing with unwanted suitors.

People who love both fantasy and Sherlock Holmes stories in the Spokane area would be wise to give "A Study in Silks" a try. Holloway has a good feel for her source material and she is able to portray Holmes and Watson in a way that should please Doyle fans. She is also very good at using urban fantasy elements in ways that don't feel like they have been done 50 times by other writers. People who enjoy the book have at least two sequels to look forward to, so that may add to the charm as well.

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