Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold
I’ll start off by saying that this is definitely within the Sherlock Holmes archetype of stories,1 but it’s got enough differing it from the rest to be interesting.
The first big difference is in the setting: it’s the same Victorianesque time period as the average Sherlock Holmes book, but this is a world with magic of a sort – or, as the locals refer to it, metaphysics. It’s a bit of a complex system, based upon written language and a fairly complex grammar, utilizing a variety of different written squares. I don’t have a great grasp of how it all works, which is okay, because the way it’s written it has a good mix of detail and lack thereof. It’s a good balance, and the way its integrated into the rest of the world is quite nice.
That leads into the second difference: while there’s a clear Sherlock figure, I got the feeling that he’s the secondary of the two narrative main characters.2 While the Sherlock is still the normal Sherlock, albeit using magic instead of opium, the Watson is a metaphysician for hire, rather than a doctor. The story begins with him, in fact: a customer comes to him to remove a curse from the family silver. Finding a lack of a curse, he does a cleansing… and is rather surprised a few days later when he’s hired again to sort out the murder of his previous client, his skull having been bashed in with some of the recently-cleansed silver. It’s at this point that he brings in the Sherlock, as that’s more his area of expertise.
The relationship between the two of them is the third major difference.3 They went to school together, had a bit of a schoolboy dalliance, broke it off in college, and then resumed it in their adulthood. It’s a weird interaction – one of those rom-com style things, where both parties involved want the same thing, but are both convinced the other doesn’t want it. It makes the switching viewpoints mechanic pretty hilarious, to be honest; I spent a lot of time gleefully muttering “you idiot” at the both of them.
It’s the taboo quality of that relationship that I enjoyed the most, I think: the book doesn’t go in for the gloss-over-it style that some take, wherein the Victorian “don’t ask, don’t tell” style4 is stretched to cover openly gay men. Instead, it’s a matter of only being shown or spoken of behind closed doors. Secretive clubs that one must be vouched for by an existing member to get into. Careful remarks that can be said to have been misheard if the wrong response is given. It makes the whole thing realistic – take away the magical aspect of the book, and I could absolutely believe it was someone’s autobiography, hidden away and recently rediscovered and published by a descendant.
All in all, it made for an interesting read, and I’m quite happy to recommend it to you.
- I should have a tag for ‘Holmesian books’ by now, I read enough of them. ↩
- Two protagonists, working together; the viewpoint switches off between the two of them throughout. Nonetheless, the Sherlock has the helm slightly less than the Watson. ↩
- Well, insofar as it’s explicitly stated; there’s a lot of queer theory talk about the canonical Holmes/Watson relationship. ↩
- See “a bared ankle is improper, but I’ll meet you at the brothel for some opium later.” ↩
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