September 29, 2014


As you know, I was a HUGE fan of the first of the Stoker & Holmes novels, and for me it felt genuinely "Holmesian" (Sherlockian? That's even worse. Forget it), with its Victorian rigidity and bleak stratification of London society. I was was both pleased and nervous to see a sequel; second books so often are... troublesome. But, my worries were unfounded; this is not Colleen Gleason's first rodeo (or her pseudonym, Joss Ware's, first rodeo, either) and the woman knows what she's about. This was a disturbing, surprising, and altogether worthy successor to THE CLOCKWORK SCARAB. More weird Victorian spiritualism, more rigid manners, beribboned fashions, and astonishing gentlemen - and a few kisses, too.

Summary: Princess Alix calls on the Misses Stoker and Holmes again, when it turns out that a dearly beloved friend is running herself to the poorhouse on spirit mediums. Talking to the dead is not done, and it's expensive to boot. Charlatans stand ready to fleece the gullible, and all the ladies must do is to debunk a medium and help seventeen year old Willa Aston find her missing brother - if he's not actually dead - and convince her that her mother is not speaking to her from beyond the grave. Ever the "stake-em-and-slay-em" Stoker, Evaline is beyond bored with what she sees as a superficial case, and dearly wishes vampires would pop out of the woodwork. Mina "observes-while-others-merely-look" Holmes is ...well, a touch hostile, to be honest. In her mind, all mediums are frauds, and only the weak-minded and hysterical fool consults with them -- making this case a vast waste of time. When it turns out that rumors of La Société de la Perdition being back in town are true -- and when both girls see for themselves a green ectoplasm-ish thing on the ceiling, it may just turn out that this "simple," boring case has dropped our sleuthing girls in well over their heads. Where's Buffy and Uncle Sherlock when you need them??

Peaks: As mentioned in my first review, both Evaline and Mina are ANNOYING, and they don't actually endear one to the other very much more in this novel -- I feel like any true "friendship" between the two of them will be a long time in coming. I don't actually consider this a problem as much as a very realistic stroke of modernizing Victorians that writers writing within the time didn't actually make clear. I don't imagine that Sherlock Holmes' original writer thought he was annoying - but taken altogether, he MUST have been - I mean, who says "elementary" when explaining the answer to a question? Someone annoying. And Mina, with her obsessive self-observation, and pedantic analytic insistence on condescendingly letting everyone know how and why they should have caught up with every clue -- wow. You'd want to smack her a couple of times a day. Equally aggravating in her leap-first-don't-think worldview is Miss Stoker. She is an excellent example of a young woman entirely blind to her privilege -- not realizing that many of the shenanigans she gets up to are because her family is filthy rich and noble. In this novel, Evaline's violent streak is equally unnerving, especially as it's not entirely clear if La Société de la Perdition is actually entirely everywhere, or if that's only Evaline's fevered imagination, as she sees vampires behind every post, and wants to KILLLLL THEM ALLLLLL. She's a little scary.

In addition to the relationship between the girls slowly taking shape, the plotting is tight. There's no "second book slump" here; the action and pacing are kept crisply moving right along, and though there's not novelty on every page, as with the first novel, the relationships move forward, and there are secondary mysteries tying from the first book to pull things together. Victorian elements abound - child pickpocket gangs and organized crime, spiritualism, medical advances and ghoulish research. And while the random reinvention of historical figures isn't something I normally love whole-heartedly, Gleason has a light touch, and the historical is far enough removed from the realm of the real to keep things interesting. Also, combining the historical with the supernatural really elevates the work into something else entirely. The gadgets Mina loves are quite a bit more in evidence this time around, as are the supernatural elements, which really begins to raise the profile of the novel as steampunk.

Valleys: Some have complained that the girls sound indistinguishable... and I would agree, for a given value of "indistinguishable." They're of similar class in Victorian England, which was practically a monoculture at that point (PRACTICALLY, I said, not entirely or literally) so there is going to be similarity. Where they differ is in what captures their interest (gadgets vs. killing vampires), what they obsess over (gadgets & appearances vs. killing things & appearances), and how they react to things (detached observation vs. getting in there and killing things). Where I tended to sigh was over the romances both Mina and Evaline experience in this novel. Evaline's quite drawn to Pix, which makes sense, since she spends a great deal of time wishing she were as strong, dashing and daring as he -- and the noble suitor she has in the previous novel pales in comparison, yet persists. In her turn, Mina has been drawn to the time-wandering Dylan, but her heart also beats for the red-headed Inspector, rescuer of dogs, and owner of his own crime-busting gadgets, which he sometimes will even share.

It's definitely a positive that Dylan becomes more of a defined character in this episode, as he goes off and has his own adventure, separate from the girls. I do find Dylan's storyline to be troublesome, mostly because I've wondered why it's included, and feel the novel would be just fine without it, but also because I find his calm acceptance a little disingenuous. Yes, steampunk is cool, yes, and a steampunk Victorian England would be interesting, but if I had time-dropped there, I'd be a lot more frantic about getting home - obsessed with it -- and terrified I'd be in the past through some stupid wars and other nonsense that I wouldn't want to live through. Add to that, jumping to an historical timeline that he can't even really recognize --? I would think a character's emotions would be all over the place. At any rate, it looks like Dylan will be around a bit longer, though I wonder how much he can be, as he is an anachronism out to change history. How long do you exist in the future, though, if you change the past...?

Conclusion: With a decorously Victorian sensibility and a break-neck steampunk pace, THE SPIRITGLASS CHARADE strikes just the right notes between the strictly defined genres of steampunk and mystery to produce an addictively readable and fun sequel to the Stoker & Bram series.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Chronicle Books. A week and a day from today, on October 7th, you can find THE SPIRITGLASS CHARADE by Colleen Gleason at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!


Sarah Stevenson said...

I agree with you - this was a very worthy second entry in the series. I enjoyed that first book SO much more than I thought I would. Gleason makes it all WORK somehow, and it is truly so much fun. And I can't help but love the inclusion of spiritualism in this one. Thanks for writing up the review!

tanita✿davis said...

@Sarah: In the hands of other authors, it wouldn't be quite as good, I think. There are few authors who do revised history with that light a touch.