Book Review

The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas

Oh, boy. This book wrecked me, from giving me twitchy tense reading in the beginning to requiring that I ignore everything around me and read in a parking lot so I could finish it at the end. First, yes, you should read the prior two books in the series, A Study in Scarlet Women ( A | BN | K | G | AB ), and A Conspiracy in Belgravia ( A | BN | K | G | AB ). It might be possible to drop into book three and follow the majority of the story, but the slow revelations and development of the characters is worth experiencing. I’m terrible at keeping up with a series, and I’m absolutely keeping up with this one.

There isn’t a whole lot I can say about the book without spoiling everything, so I’m going to try to describe what I liked, while also remaining  vague enough for folks who haven’t read it yet and are curious. Charlotte Holmes and Mrs. Watson are low-key looking after Livia, Charlotte’s sister, from afar. They stop to visit Lord Ingram, who was the subject of a horrible reveal at the end of the last book, and who is the other half of a “omg kiss already” sexual tension tug of war with Charlotte. Their visit is very Lizzie Bennet/Pemberley, with little nods to the similarity and the differences. Then Lord Ingram’s estranged wife shows up all dead in the ice house and oh crap he’s being framed for the murder.

One of the charms of the character of Charlotte Holmes is that she’s very smart, terrifyingly so, and she’s almost always one calm step ahead of everyone around her. In this book, we see her shaken, afraid, and extremely out of sorts to the point where she isn’t eating – and Charlotte loves to eat. Her lack of appetite scares her closest friends as well, and that tension only builds.

Charlotte, Mrs. Watson, Lord Ingram, and Treadles, one of the inspectors of Scotland Yard who has worked with Holmes and Ingram before, are all pulled into the case, as Treadles’ boss is pretty eager to see Ingram hang, and the rest of them are trying to figure out who is framing him and why. They’re all working with and against one another at varying points, which can get confusing, but the baseline security of the prior novels – that Charlotte always knows what’s up – is missing. Because she isn’t giving any signs of having reached the conclusion before everyone else, and she isn’t arranging so much as she is trying and failing to find the culprit, she, and in turn everyone else, come to realize who is vulnerable, and why that vulnerability exists. The stakes are higher, and are terrifying.

Smaller plots begun in the prior two novels develop wonderfully as well. Livia, Charlotte’s sister, is slowly becoming her own person as much as the limitations that surround her allow her to, and chapters from her point of view and scenes wherein she stands up for herself were freaking delightful. Another character who fell dramatically in my estimation in the last book learns from his mistakes and gets the hell over himself. Seeing a man unlearn judgmental habits and recognize the horror of his own behavior and why his actions have been so awful and offensive was so deeply satisfying. Sexism is complicated, and it’s complicated to undo, if one even wishes to dismantle the way they view the world.

The heart of these stories is the gender-flipping of Sherlock to Charlotte, how brilliance contained in a female is treated so very differently than brilliance presented by a man, and the ways in which sexism and misogyny limit the freedom and power of women in that era. It’s chilling how much of what is illustrated as part of the past is still very much in the present.

The danger for me as a reader with a series is that I’ll get tired of the characters in subsequent books repeating the same movements and measures, progressing through the plot with a familiarity that becomes boring for me. That danger was not present here. Charlotte makes mistakes, to the point where I wanted to yell at her for not fully considering the way her actions might scare someone who isn’t aware of what she’s doing (Sorry, Vagueness for Reasons). I wish there had been more of Mrs. Watson, and a bit more explanation of some of the marginal characters who reappear from prior novels (I had a few, “Who the hell are you?” moments while reading). And I wish so much there had been more of Livia – which leads me to look forward to the next book, where it seems her story may develop even further.

The aspect of this novel that irked me the most was a structural decision in the chronology of the storytelling. The plot moves very quickly through a very small length of time with scenes in chronological order. Then the relationship between two characters jumps ahead, as does the timeline, and it’s not until a chapter or two later that the missing information, scenes, and events were filled in. This is a common device, and certainly it isn’t out of place, but because that jump in time also advanced the relationship between two of the characters, I found it jarring and felt that it deflated the tension overmuch. That said, once everything was explained and the story put back into order, that tension was restored in a different and realistic way. As a romance reader, I know my expectations lean toward a relationship to progress without massive jumps ahead that cheat me of the escalation in tension. I think in this case, my expectations were misplaced, but the disruption in narrative tension did affect my overall enjoyment.

I will keep recommending this series, as it is so layered with opportunities to examine it. It can be read as a mystery, as a historical novel with found family, as an examination of sexism and societal limitations on women, and how those limitations are subverted in acceptable and unacceptable ways, or as a study of those outside the boundaries of high society and how they survive with disguises built of behavior.

Personally, I’m invested in the characters, especially Livia and Mrs. Watson, and in the eventually happiness of all of them. They’re each, along with ancillary characters who also reveal their true nature beneath their social disguise, trying to right wrongs and restore some form of safety if not justice for those around them. That was exactly what I wanted to read, and I might have to go back and re-read the series again – something I rarely, if ever, do. If you like historical mystery with a very hefty and savory helping of critical analysis of social expectations, sexism, and the roles women are expected to play, you’ll very much like this series. (Now hurry up and read them so you can email me about them and we can discuss!)

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The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas

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  1. Amy says:

    I’m listening to the audiobook for this right now, and it’s killing me because I’m enjoying it so much, but if I was actually reading it, I would have stayed up all night to find out how it ends! I love these books!

  2. Rhiannon says:

    You refer in your review to the examination of sexism and limitations on women, which I’ve appreciated reading about in the previous books. Could you speak to any of the other societal commentary/tones in the third book? I really enjoyed the first two books overall, but I continue to debate (with myself) continuing the series given that the problematic thing that sticks with me (as someone Jewish) is the prior books’ anti-Semitic character dialogue and plot references. Thank you.

  3. SB Sarah says:

    Rhiannon: alas, that character’s dialogue is repeated as part of recounting her general horribleness. I’m sorry.

  4. DonnaMarie says:

    I can’t say to stop copying me this time, because I an actively delaying this one for another week. Too many books I can’t renew piled up ahead of it.
    Thanks for the review. I’m pretty excited to have it in my sights.

  5. Iris says:

    I was looking forward to your review and love how it highlights all the ways this series can be appreciated. I agree with nearly everything you say except that I quite liked how the chronological jump functioned within the story. In a sense Thomas was able to have her cake and eat it too by allowing certain tensions to dissipate while demonstrating that it does little to solve the real impediments to the relationship.

    Who is responsible for the emotional labor in a relationship has been on my mind lately in response to another series I have been reading, the Amory Ames Mystery Series by Ashley Weaver, and I was thinking while reading the Hollow of Fear how this affects Charlotte and her relationships as well. Everyone widely perceives Charlotte as being emotionally limited yet I am intrigued at the extent and the subtlety of the emotional lifting that Charlotte manages in this book though as you point out she makes some real mistakes as well.

    and without spoiling anything, I was appalled at how the callous indifference by one of the characters to the well-being of someone described as the village idiot lead to tragic results without any feelings of remorse.

  6. Kareni says:

    I’m looking forward to reading this. Thanks for the review, Sarah.

  7. Rhiannon says:

    Sarah, thank you for replying 🙂

  8. HL says:

    I love the covers for this series. Normally not what I would stop to look at except for those beautiful covers (catchy titles too) and now for what sounds like an interesting and complicated storyline. So thanks for the review and to all who added in the comments! I think I’m going to try the audio first.

  9. Iris says:

    @HL The audiobook read by Kate Reading is wonderful! I read the book first and then immediately listened to it and enjoyed both formats equally well.

  10. WS says:

    Actually, I loved this book enough that it prompted me to reread all of my Sherry Thomas books. (I had forgotten that Miss Redmayne appears briefly in Beguiling the Beauty; the ubiquity of Lady Avery and her sister, I did recall.)

    I believe that the flashbacks introduce a couple of continuity errors, but, for once, this doesn’t particularly impact my love for the book.

    I wish I didn’t need to wait a year for the next one.

  11. Megan A Gadd says:

    Your review matches my own feelings about this book almost perfectly. What a joy to read (both the book and the review!). To me, the most noteworthy part of the book is pretty spoilery so I’ll be as vague as possible. The slow-burn romance’s development is fascinating, especially in this book. About halfway through something happened that made me feel like I should have received some emotional payoff but was cheated out of it. HOWEVER by the end of the book, when all is revealed, it seems that I wasn’t cheated of the emotional payoff after all. It felt a bit like whiplash, but I’m pretty sure I liked it? LOL. Can’t wait for the next installment.

  12. Lisa F says:

    Sherry Thomas = instabuy for me! Sounds like this is a great time!

  13. Hayley says:

    I just finished A Study in Scarlet Women, and I want to continue the series. But tbqh it broke my heart seeing Treadles’ concept of his relationship with Alice fall apart. I know that he needs to learn a Feminist Lesson, which I am all for, but I’m in the HEA trade, so I need to know that he does learn it and they become happy again. I know the series isn’t over, but does book 3 provide any hints of reassurance?

  14. SB Sarah says:

    @Hayley: Indeed, he does learn better. I found it to be very satisfying.

  15. Hayley says:

    Sarah, thank you so much for letting me know!

  16. EJ says:

    I’m late to the party but I just finished this and I’m so FRUSTRATED with Lord Ingram for REASONS. Does the man just hate happiness?? Charlotte keeps poking fun at his “starchiness” but he is beyond starchy and maybe she needs someone a little less concerned with social codes that obviously serve NO ONE in these books. Rant over. I hope that’s vague enough to not be a spoiler.

  17. Erin Spock says:

    I absolutely loved these books. They can be blamed for my audible addiction. They got me reading her romances as well and I really appreciate how she deals with the era’s approach to disabilities and thre unconditional love between (some) sisters.

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