Monday, September 23, 2013

Jane Austen Presents a Sherlock Holmes Extravaganza

Emma Jane Holloway, A Study in Silks

Evelina Cooper is in London for the Season, hoping to snag a rich, well-connected husband. Raised in the circus, she was reclaimed by her gentry kinfolk, putting her feet in two worlds. When murder strikes the household staff, Evelina must use her spellcasting and her mechanical genius to crack the case. But she must hurry, before someone involves her chaotic, meddling uncle, Sherlock Holmes.

Emma Jane Holloway’s first novel combines steampunk, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, and Victoriana with frenetic aplomb. Add a cowboy, and she’d have the perfect paperback. Considering the large market for period-based ensemble dramas, this novel could become a license to print money. But Ballantine should wait to count their haul, because Holloway’s intended audience may find this book frustrating.

Casual readers will notice, first, that this book is long. Really, really long. Over 530 pages of headache-inducing teeny type, with weirdly narrow margins, meaning it’s probably even longer than you think. If the entire trilogy resembles this book, Holloway’s finished series will run longer than Bantam’s two-volume paperback of Conan Doyle’s complete Holmes canon.

Nobody would probably mind this book’s length if its entire vast mass constituted a focused, energetic story. But Holloway rambles interminably about topics that scarcely advance her core narrative. The problem arises from her conflicting narrative influences. Though Holmes casts a long shadow over this book, he contributes little, and Holloway doesn’t much mimic Arthur Conan Doyle’s famously terse, unornamented style.

Instead, notice the author’s byline (even her website doesn’t conceal it’s a pseudonym): Emma Jane Holloway. Emma, Jane Austen’s saga of a rich matchmaker, blind to her own weaknesses. Like Austen, Holloway takes principle interest in her characters’ courtship habits, spending pages and pages and pages on her heroine’s painstaking efforts to choose a husband. The mystery, meanwhile, drops teasing hints about mechanical men and tree sprites, but advances only incrementally.

While this novel is far longer than anything Conan Doyle ever wrote, it’s also confoundingly longer than anything Austen ever wrote. Holloway extends her heroine’s indecision over countless pages of banter, sparring, and mutual doubt. Evelina knows who she wants, and he wants her back; their courtship is impeded only by everybody’s unwillingness to say what everybody already knows.

Meanwhile, the body count rises and intensive backroom politicking begins showing real world consequences. Holloway introduces numerous subplots and a cast of thousands, so many that she can’t keep everyone engaged simultaneously. Key characters vanish and important revelations languish for nearly 100 pages because their subplots take second position. The streets one character walks to a clandestine confab merit more description than the meeting itself. The narration crawls.

I’ve criticized previous novels and novelists for lack of concrete detail, but Holloway proves the adage: “Everything in moderation.” She tries to do too much. Her vastly overwritten prose attempts to pastiche largely incompatible authorial styles. When her page count exceeds either The Hound of the Baskervilles or Mansfield Park, and she’s still introducing new characters, readers can only think: somebody tap the brakes!

Indeed, Holloway introduces so many threads that she can’t weave them all. She does well, comparatively, integrating steampunk into her Victorian milieu, and the politics surrounding technological upheaval is intermittently exciting. But her fantasy element feels like an afterthought. Only one central character practices magic, and she does so to make James Bond-type spy tools. Wizardry is less a subplot than a work-around.

Then, attentive readers will get increasingly frustrated by Holloway’s frequent Americanisms. Audiences who read Conan Doyle and Austen know enough British to feel bothered when authors use “English” that would sound inverted and Yoda-like in London. Even such minutiae as how Holloway spells “gray” jump out at her intended Anglophile audience. How can an author enamored of fine detail miss this?

Nor is Holloway’s prose helped by her humorless self-consciousness. Conan Doyle embroiders his fiction with waggish Victorian in-jokes. And Austen, if you ignore the starchy manner her works get taught in school, is more Monty Python than Important Literature. Yet Holloway remains persistently dry, except in moments of banter, which are quite good, but too episodic to leaven the entire novel.

At the risk of sounding sexist, this book will primarily attract middle-class women, who enjoy the escapism of intensively detailed period drama. Other audiences will find Holloway’s deluge of imagery, coupled with her lack of narrative momentum, draining, and her page count imposing. Holmes aficionados and English majors will particularly dislike this book, and beg Holloway to get out of her own way.

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