[Book Review] Consulting sorceress and alternate universes

LetterBook Review: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

I’m a bit of a Sherlock alt-canon completionism. If it’s a Sherlock Holmes-inspired story, I’ll read (or watch) it. So after a long hiatus from NetGalley, of course The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall was the first thing I requested.

Imagine this: Consulting sorceress Shaharazad Haas (Sherlock) and ex-special military John Wyndham (Watson) end up as flatmates in a crazy world of necromancers, aliens, vampires, and alternate universes. Haas’ ex-flame needs her help; she’s being blackmailed to break off her engagement, and who best to get to the bottom of it all but the world’s foremost consulting sorceress?

It’s a clever take on the Sherlock story, with the narrative “written” by Wyndham (Watson) as if for a weekly serial in a magazine in John’s world. Because it takes manuscript form, littered with dry asides aimed at Wyndham’s editor, the story gets to use some excellent foreshadowing: how does Haas (eventually) die, who of the many characters we encounter ends up being Wyndham’s husband…and so on.

But wait, you ask, does this mean you liked the book?

No, not really. But if the ratings are anything to go by, it seems most folks are loving it. So first, the positive! Here are a couple reasons you might dig The Affair of the Mysterious Letter:

  • Man, this universe. It’s a vast, expansive world in which all gods, magic, and science exist simultaneously, realities overlap, and magic powers can be arbitrary and limitless.
  • All the callbacks. Fans of Sherlock will enjoy the many nods to the original. There’s a superbly fun take on Mrs. Hudson (Ms. Hive, in this universe).
  • Representation! The easy, full acceptance of different gender identities and relationships in this world: Haas’ has romantic entanglements with the most dangerous of ladies, adventuress Viola’s engagement to the charming Miss Beck is the crux of the mystery, and there’s that casual blink-and-you-missed-it mention that Wyndham grew up female…
  • Wyndham is the best. Speaking of Wyndham, he’s the unquestionable star of this book. I came for the Sherlock sorceress, but stayed for Wyndham’s formal (yet) amusingly prudish, wit and dry style. In fact, much like in my recent reading of the (unrelated) The Rook, I fell in love with and wanted to hear more about our narrator’s past self and adventures.

Okay, so that seems pretty great. What’s the catch?

Well, the catch is that the character Haas was (unintentionally?) the worst.

See, the thing is, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter relies on you to know the Sherlock world. In that world, of course John and Sherlock (Wyndham and Haas, in this case) would bond immediately. Of course Haas has a charming, magnetic personality that transforms Wyndham’s life and makes him willing to risk life, sanity and reputation.

Unfortunately, because the story accepts these as given, it never shows the moments that built the foundation on which the characters then interact and go off adventuring. Taken as a standalone novel, Haas and Wyndham’s relationship comes across as rather one-sided and abusive, from Haas endlessly belittling Wyndham, to Wyndham ending up doing Haas’ laundry.

As a consulting Sorceress, Haas researches, consults on sorcery, and occasionally helps friends with cases by threatening (and killing?) people until they tell her what she wants to know. This isn’t a great look.

Without that core relationship, the rest of the story struggles. This book is lucky to be standing on the shoulders of canon, so if character dynamics are your jam, proceed with caution.

But if you’re here for a crazy world with backdrop of a posh historical (Victorian meets Mardi-Gras meets Venice) style sensibility, this could be your next favorite read.

Rating: Five stars for concept and style, two for characters and story.

 

Canaries, have you read this book?
What did you think?

 

Review copy generously provided by the publisher.

 

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[Book Review] In which I re-evaluate my bias against magic libraries

 

Book Review: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

Canaries, this is the book I was looking for when I had my ill-fated encounter with The Eyre Affair in 2017 and swore off all book-themed fantasy novels. Little did I know that The Invisible Library was out there.

Two years later, here I am, eating my words. Fantasy books about books can be excellent.

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman (and the rest of the series) combines the high stakes of a spy thriller with the shenannigans of fantasy novel, populated with colorful characters, an intriguing and competent main lead, and several series level mysteries that kept me hooked. Continue reading

[Book Review] Why Consider Phlebas did nothing for me.

Book Review: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Culture 1.jpg

So. After everything I’d heard about the AI-driven utopian world of “The Culture” in Iain M. Banks books…I was expecting a bit more, well, utopia in my Science Fiction read.

Instead, Consider Phlebas delivered a gritty military science fiction: A disconnected protagonist, rotating cast of loosely sketched out supporting characters, relationships based on alienation, violent conflict, lots of slow-build tension and suspense, and a loosely connected series of action sequences. Oh and a bunch of exposition on democracy vs theocracy (life vs AI, systems vs chaos, the meaning of being alive, etc etc) that I grimly power-read my way through.

Continue reading

[Book Review] Conceptually intriguing, casually terrible

Eyre Affair.jpgBook Review: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

So many things to dislike, so little time to talk about them all.

(Spoilers ahead. All the spoilers, because idgaf.)

I rarely try books more than once, so I should have trusted my gut when I got stuck a couple chapter in – not once but twice. But this week, I got the audiobook, because I really wanted to get through this book about a murder mystery in an alternative history fantasy world of time travel and literature. Lesson learned, because this book was terrible.

I grit my teeth through the prose style and weird perspective shifts. I was willing to suffer through the self-indulgent literary babble and fangirling, because, okay, literature is as religion in this world, and as a book lover, I totally get it. I even powered through the weird inconsistencies: Okay, this universe has casual time travel, and yet the biggest mystery in Fforde’s world is the identity of the true author of Shakespeare’s plays? And Thursday is the first person ever to ask a time traveler to check? Fine, whatever. Continue reading

[Book Review] That’s one way to make it in New York

Omega

Book Review: Omega Rising by Jessica Meats

What’s this? A quick 90-page novella of a story about a down-on-her-luck Jenny who moves to New York City in hopes of getting a minimum wage job to cover her rent, only to find herself hired by a security firm and leading a secret battle against aliens.

I know, right? Continue reading

[Book Review] A dark and stormy night, plus amnesia

RookBook Review: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

“Dear you,

The body you are wearing used to be mine.”

Myfanwy Thomas opens her eyes to find herself standing in the pouring rain, in a London park, surrounded by bodies, with absolutely no memory of who she is, and a letter in the pocket of her coat addressed to her.

This book had me hooked from that first line.

The mystery is tantalizing – I couldn’t get enough of it. Who’s after Myfanwy? Aliens? Evil scientists? Paranormal? Government conspiracy? The story unspooled its revelations one by one, teasing and keeping the tension taught. Myfanwy starts out as a brilliant combo of practical, cool-headed, and completely lost as she tries to a) stay alive and b) navigate the deadly life of her past self. Continue reading

[Book Review] Creepy cover horse says you should read this

Book Review: Tempest: All-New Tales of Valdemar by Mercedes Lackey

tempest

I’m falling behind, guys. Of the 34-or-so Valdemar(ish) books out there, I’ve read only 20 to date. So when I saw an anthology set in the world of Mercedes Lackey, it was a no brainer. Of course I had to read it.

Creepy cover notwithstanding, this was a 387-page anthology full of 22 feel-good story resolutions via 23 different authors (the last story being Lackey and Dixon’s work). The tempest theme appeared throughout, both as physical and emotional storms, as each author made that light nod to the world of Velgarth. The stories included heralds, healers, bards, companions, and even a couple non-human characters.
Continue reading