What a promising premise to Colleen Gleason's first "Stoker and Holmes" novel, The Clockwork Scarab (2013)! Irene Adler, AKA "the woman,..Show More »34; the American opera singer who got the best of Sherlock Holmes in "A Scandal in Bohemia" and is now the keeper of British Museum antiquities, recruits Alvermina (Mina) Holmes, the great detective's niece, and Evaline Stoker, Bram Stoker's younger sister, to be secret agent/detectives discretely risking "life and limb for their queen, their countrymen, and the Empire," just as many young men but no other young women do. And the girls quickly find themselves investigating a deadly scheme to bring the Egyptian goddess of death Sekhmet back to life. The story is set in a steampunk 1889 London, for Parliament has passed an act banning electricity and promoting steam power. Thus the city hisses with myriad "cognoggin" gadgets of every size and purpose, including self-propelled Refuse-Agitators and Night-Illuminators, steam-powered lifts and trolleys, mechanized Tome-Selectors and corset removers, Steam-Stream guns and finger-sized steam throwers, and clockwork hairclips and dragonfly pins. Steam-London is a city of sky-scrapers, the tops of the swaying buildings held in place by helium-filled balloon-like sky-anchors. Did I forget the airships? As if all that weren't enough, Gleason tosses in time travel and alternate worlds in the person of Dylan Eckhert, an American from 2016 who believes that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character and asserts that electricity has never been illegal. This leads to some amusing culture shock, as Mina encounters iPhones, Nikes, and slang like "cool" and "hot."
At first I liked the independent and spunky 17-year-old Mina and Evaline, trying to solve a macabre mystery while chafing at the restrictions, dismissals, and ignominies of their patriarchal culture. Tall and gawky Mina is a true Holmes, a girl of observation, deduction, and planning, while petite and pretty Evaline is her family's vampire hunter, a girl of action endowed with superhuman strength, speed, and healing ability. While Mina becomes winded during strenuous action and feels abandoned by her parents, Evaline becomes paralyzed before spilled blood and has to deal with Bram's wife wanting to marry her to some man who will take care of her. Mina is a willing recluse, Evaline an unwilling socialite. They complement each other.
Alas, the more I read, the more flaws I found. Like so many YA novels, Gleason's is narrated in the first person, the girls taking turns, but despite Mina's more intellectual vocabulary, their narrative voices are too similar, both using the same exclamations (drat, blast, blooming, etc.) and both tending to over-describe people, clothes, and devices. Here is Evaline on her older brother Bram: "I'm petite and elegant, and he's rather stocky. . . He has a full beard and a moustache, with an auburn tint in the growth nearest the lips." Mina on her outfit: "My skirt was a sunny yellow flowered polonaise, pulled back up into a bustle that exposed a cheerful gold, blue, and green ruffled underskirt. The tight fitting basque bodice I wore over it was pale blue, trimmed with yellow, green, and white ribbons, making the ensemble bright and summer-like and complimenting my golden brown hair and hazel eyes." And Mina on the "large bubble-like reservoir of ink" (1st time) and the "bulbous reservoir" (2nd time) atop Inspector Grayling's "fancy" phallic "self-inking pen." Such descriptions too often convey details that have nothing to do with the plot and make the girls seem oddly superficial. Both girls also use the same words to describe the several tall, broad-shouldered, sleek-muscled, warm-bodied, thick-haired, square jawed, minty/spicy/smoky/sandalwoody/lemony-scented young hunks they repeatedly run into and their febrile reactions to them: sweaty palms, dry mouths, flushed/warm/heated/burning cheeks, fluttering insides, flipping hearts, frozen brains, and discombobulated minds. As a result of all this, I often found myself thinking, "That's Gleason, not Mina/Evaline!"
For that matter, too often Gleason writes overwrought romance: "My whole body was hot and trembly. My knees shook, and I could do nothing but stare at him for a moment, my lips moist and throbbing, my heart thundering like a runaway horse." Given the many moments in the novel criticizing male-dominated Victorian society and Mina and Evaline's brains and bravery, before young men they steam too easily.
Finally, to increase suspense Gleason has the girls do some stunningly stupid things (which I'll avoid spoiling) and undergo some stunningly rapid changes in morale, Mina going in three pages from "I realized I wasn't enough of a Holmes" to "The game was afoot," and Evaline in two from "I had no right to call myself a Venator, a vampire hunter" to "You're a Venator. You're strong. Fight." And the climax is absurd and the resolution incomplete (Gleason cheating to make us read the sequel?).
Despite its neat premise, then, The Clockwork Scarab disappointed rather than fulfilled me. I even realized that the steampunk setting is superfluous, for the scarab need not be clockwork, Grayling's steam-cycle could be a motorcycle, and the villain's main devices are electrical or supernatural. As interesting as it is for steam to be the lifeblood of Victorian London and as nifty as the cognoggin devices are, I wish the novel explored the ramifications and meanings of such a society. Laurie R. King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice (1994), about the relationship between fifteen-year-old Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, is much more convincing.
Jane Entwistle capably reads the novel, deftly handling the American and British and Scottish accents and male and female speakers, though I found her Evaline a bit grating.