Friday, November 1, 2013

A Study in Darkness (The Baskerville Affair #2) by Emma Jane Holloway

Evelina Cooper has lost everything that is important for her.  Forced to remove herself from society to endure her grandmother's attempts to find her a husband, Evelina still aches over the separation from her best friend, and the loss of the two men that she loves.  Little does she know that soon she will be drawn back into the world of intrigue when a bomb goes off at her uncle Sherlock's flat. Evelina will soon find herself forced to work for the nefarious gold king as all around her, ladies of the night are being murdered most brutally.  For the first time, Evelina is also tempted by black magic when she works closely with Magnus.  So much is at stake and Evelina quickly realises that will have to risk all, if she is to have any hope of saving the people she loves.

I must admit that I am a bit of a fanpoodle when it comes to this series and my only real regret is that it the Baskerville Affair only has three books.  It is so easy to lose one's self in the story and the strong steam punk aspect that Holloway has infused into this series.  The writing is very vivid and the pacing could not be more perfect.

As protagonists go, Evelina is absolutely selfless.  She is intelligent and extremely empathetic.  With everything going on, it would have been very easy for Holloway to turn Evelina into a spunky agent but she very directly has Evelina avoid this by thinking through each aspect of the challenges presented to her.  Sherlock could have overwhelmed Evelina but instead, he forces her to challenge her assumptions and think through each lesson that she has learned. 

A Study in Darkness has a strong class element in that Holloway explores what it is like for those who were not born into privilege.  This is a rare element in steampunk as much of it is focused on the upper classes and drawing room intrigue.  People do what they need to do survive at the hands of those determined to horde all of the wealth for themselves. 

A Study in Darkness includes a new twist on Jack the Ripper.  Normally when it comes to sex trade workers, there is a lot of slut shaming but Holloway makes it clear that these women are forced by circumstance into their trade and actively asserts their humanity and right to live a life free of violence.

Women in this series are strong and even the constantly ill Imogen is made of stern stuff.  Imogen is very aware that her father plans to marry her off to a steam baron and rather than consent to a marriage with someone she can barely stand, Imogen attempts to elope.  It doesn't end well for her but even in the worst of circumstances Imogen does not give up.  Imogen does not have the skills of Evelina but rather than waiting passively for rescue, she looks around for a way to defend herself.

I know that I have fanpoodled and that even the greatest jewel has some sort of flaw.  A Study in Darkness did engage in vicious unnecessary fat shaming when it came to King Coal.
Holmes had never seen King Coal in person, and he found himself momentarily stunned.  There was something almost mythical about the sight, as if he were regarding the personification of Gluttony in some absurd pageant.  To say the man as enormously fat fell short.  He was a mountain of suet draped for modesty and enthroned in a chair.  The chair itself was on wheels, powered by a steam engine because no human alive could have pushed its weight.  In fat, three scruffy boys strained to merely steer it into place.

Holmes, whose relationship with food was cordial but at times optional, was fascinated and appalled.  The room reeked of the Blue King's body, as if they were breathing his effluvia. Sweat trickled in a steady stream down the rolls and folds of the man's slug-pale flesh, the heat of the chair's engine rendering him down to oil.

Obviously King Coal never suffered the slightest pang of hunger or thirst. 
Readers are meant to be absolutely disgusted with steam barons but Holloway took it to a new level with the fat shaming that was engaged in.  King Coal isn't disgusting because he is hoarding resources, and impoverishing people like he other barons, he is disgusting because he is fat.  The implication that he is fat because of gluttony simply reifies the idea that fat people have no self control.  It is rather telling that The Blue King is also supposedly disabled because of his weight.  Most fat people who are wheelchair users, have some sort of disability not related to weight.  Further, King Coal is impossibly fat - so fat that he is incapable of turning his head. This made me wonder how much Holloway knows about physiology.  Even a thousand pound man is capable of turning his head.  Though King Coal only really occupied a few pages, they were overwhelming filled with passages which are clearly fat shaming like he following in which the Blue King discusses his plans for his enemies.

"Yes Mr.Holmes we will find him, and then we'll boil he flesh from his bones.  We'll make a dinner out [of] him! I think with rosemary and a splash of Bordeaux and, oh, maybe a daub of quince jelly."
None of this shaming was even remotely relevant to the story whatsoever. 

As per usual with this genre, Holloway has included no characters of colour and no GLBT characters.  Erasure has become quite he norm in steampunk but it is certainly not acceptable. For the life of me, I will never understand why writers seem content to push the myth that Victorian England was all White, straight and cisgender.  Not only is it false, it is harmful to historically marginalized people.  Having a White female protagonist does not offset the damage that is being done.

Despite the problems with this book and indeed series to date, I am very invested in it.  A Study in Darkness like its predecessor is an extremely entertaining read and it is impossible not to root for its protagonist.  I want to know where Evelina's journey ends and if she will ever be able to totally live her life on her own terms.

Editors Note: A copy of this book was received by Netgalley.