The Baskerville Affair Trilogy (A Study in Silks, A Study in Darkness, and A Study in Ashes) does an amazing thing – it starts out with one tone (fun, light, YA gaslamp fantasy) and ends as something completely different in tone (dark, adult gaslamp fantasy), and it does this in a seamless, natural way.
This is not a romance series but it does have a strong romantic arc. If you are going to read any of the books, you are going to need to read all three, so clear your calendar for a couple of days! Technically I’m reviewing the whole series but for formatting purposes I’m listing this as a review of the last book in the trilogy.
Book One, A Study in Silks, introduces us to a Victorian world in which the steam barons rule over all. Queen Victoria is a powerless figurehead and the Barons fight for their territories with absolute ruthlessness. This is also a world with magic, but magic is feared and a magic user can be put to death for it.
The cast of characters is huge, but the main character, the one whose point of view we see most often, is Evelina. Evelina, an orphan, is staying with her best friend, Imogene, when one of the maids at Imogene’s house is found dead. Evelina has an interesting family history due to her mother’s elopement with someone “below her station” and the subsequent death of both of Evelina’s parents. One grandmother is the leader of a travelling circus and the other one is a member of the gentry, and they are both powerful influences on her life.
Evelina was forced to leave the circus where she was raised so that she could become a proper young lady – but she finds it difficult because she is looked down on by society, she can’t bring herself to stop climbing things, and she has magical abilities which she is both desperate to use and desperate to conceal. She’s also very good at tinkering and making clockwork toys, which she can infuse with magical spirits. Last but not least, she is the niece of Sherlock Holmes. As such, she has an inquiring mind and pretty good deductive skills.
In the first book, Evelina is trying to solve the murder of the maid but she also has a love triangle to figure out. She has a hefty crush on Tobias, Imogene’s brother. Tobias is sort of a slacker but he has the potential to be a good man, and both Tobias and Evelina cherish secret hopes that Evelina will help him grow the hell up (Tobias is a bit of a whiner). Meanwhile, Evelina is visited by Nick, her childhood sweetheart from the circus. Evelina and Nick were crazy about each other when they were growing teens, but they both have magical powers, and when they are together they attract loud, shiny magical energy that would get them caught and killed for being magic users (that’s a simplification but it gives you the basic idea). So they are star-crossed, basically. Nick is still with the circus and still crazy about Evelina.
The love triangle starts off as the weakest part of the story. First of all, in my opinion love triangles are over-used in general. Second of all, neither man deserves Evelina. Neither of them has any moral compass at all: they are both impulsive and irresponsible, and they are both self-centered and whiny. This one area where having three books came in handy – it was fascinating to see the different directions the men went in and why. I had a great time reading A Study in Silks, but I have to say that even though that book was great, it’s nothing to the depth and growth and scope that happens in the next book, which is called A Study in Darkness but might as well be called Holy Crap, People – Shit Got Real!
Over the course of the next two books, the stage gets bigger, darker, scarier, and everyone grows up big time. The next two books look at the big picture as the steam barons fight amongst themselves with our characters in the crossfires, and a revolution brews. Everyone has to find their own strength, and most characters have to make difficult, murky moral choices. I won’t say who Evelina ends up with, but I will say that she spends quite a lot of time single. She doesn’t lose one guy and then bounce to the other one by default. And when she does have a romantic happy ever after, the person she ends up with deserves her and she deserves them.
In Book Two, A Study in Darkness, Evelina remains a main character but the point of view is spread out a bit more. In Book Three, A Study in Ashes, Evelina continues to be an incredible character but the point of view is spread out even more evenly so we get plot threads about Imogene, Imogene’s sister Poppy, Nick, Tobias, and a generous smidgen about one of Evelina’s old school chums. The impressive thing is that even with the story jumping around with every chapter, it was so well grounded by the previous books that it doesn’t feel disjointed or confusing or too crowded.
I can’t overstate how much I loved this series and how impressed I was by the accomplishments of the author who made the tonal shifts feel just right instead of feeling like a betrayal of expectations. The world building, the politics, the shout-outs to Sherlock Holmes legacy – all amazing. When the Hound of the Baskervilles was first mentioned I let out a little squeak of joy, and then things with the Hound kept getting better and better. The use of steampunk and magic was fantastically rendered and was all the more powerful because a whole society was affected by it. This wasn’t steampunk where you stick some gears on something and call it a day – this was a world in which people died of cholera because the steam barons control their access to clean water.
The technology and the magic was fun, colorful, whimsical, grisly, commonplace, and frightening by turns. There are airship pirates and there are dragons and talking birds and princes in disguise and all kinds of fun things, and there’s some gruesome horror and terrible tragedy. There’s also love, love that grows slowly over time, love that has to be earned and fought for. Even though this is not specifically a romance series, and not everyone gets a HEA, I was swooning all over the place by the end.
Above all, the characters are developed with care. There are some villains who we simply loathe, but most of the characters are written with some compassion, and that makes them more interesting than a one-dimensional bad guy. The “good” characters are “good” in different ways and for different reasons, and they have their own complicated layers to deal with. The men in this story are interesting, and some are deeply romantic and dynamic figures, but this is very much a story about women who seize their destiny in a world in which they are disempowered.
This book had great examples of “strong” male and female characters with many different kinds of strength. By the climax of the third book, one is left with a strong impression that whether a woman is armed with godlike magical powers, a small knife, or nothing but her brains and her determination, you’d be wise to avoid pissing her off. The Bechdel test is passed a hundred times over and there are no token characters – everyone is a person and everyone has an important role to play in the story. People changed – in a lot of cases, people changed enormously. But I believed in their change because it was carefully developed and fit their overall character.
Readers should know that Book 2 (A Study in Darkness) involves graphic violence (the crimes of Jack the Ripper play a major plot point, and we find out who Jack actually is). Book 3 (A Study in Ashes) is, if anything, even darker. All the characters are permanently marked by the violence that surrounds them and the violence acts that many of them wind up committing. Yet overall the ending is a happy one – not for everyone, but for many of the characters that we care about the most. The series ends with a hopeful feeling – a feeling that the country and the characters will be able to heal and be happy, at least, those who are still alive. The series ends satisfactorily but with room for future installments, which would make me SO HAPPY. The best praise I can give a series is that I hate to see it end!