A Study in Honor
by Claire O’Dell
Harper Voyager (July 31, 2018)
304 p. ISBN 9780062699305
Set in a near future Washington, D.C., a clever, incisive, and fresh feminist twist on a classic literary icon—Sherlock Holmes—in which Dr. Janet Watson and covert agent Sara Holmes will use espionage, advanced technology, and the power of deduction to unmask a murderer targeting Civil War veterans.
Dr. Janet Watson knows firsthand the horrifying cost of a divided nation. While treating broken soldiers on the battlefields of the New Civil War, a sniper’s bullet shattered her arm and ended her career. Honorably discharged and struggling with the semi-functional mechanical arm that replaced the limb she lost, she returns to the nation’s capital, a bleak, edgy city in the throes of a fraught presidential election. Homeless and jobless, Watson is uncertain of the future when she meets another black and queer woman, Sara Holmes, a mysterious yet playfully challenging covert agent who offers the doctor a place to stay.
Watson’s readjustment to civilian life is complicated by the infuriating antics of her strange new roommate. But the tensions between them dissolve when Watson discovers that soldiers from the New Civil War have begun dying one by one—and that the deaths may be the tip of something far more dangerous, involving the pharmaceutical industry and even the looming election. Joining forces, Watson and Holmes embark on a thrilling investigation to solve the mystery—and secure justice for these fallen soldiers.
I think most people could guess by now that I love twists on the classic Holmes story. While I do enjoy the more traditional pastiche—give me a Lyndsay Faye story any day!—there is something that continues to intrigue me about pastiches that do something different to our characters. Holmes and Watson were, after all, men of their time, even if they were eccentric. Pastiches that throw them into different times, different genders, different sexualities, different abilities help shine a light on what makes a Holmes and a Watson intrinsically Holmes-and-Watson, in my mind; they are conductors of light.
One can imagine my sheer and utter excitement when, while doing my monthly search for upcoming Holmesian novels, I found A Study in Honor on the list. Holmes and Watson in the near (somewhat dystopian, utterly plausible) future, as Black queer women? I am pretty sure I screamed myself hoarse, and then proceeded to digitally scream on my twitter and Facebook and tumblr. I hopped right over to Edelweiss, which had ARCs available, and requested it. When I didn’t hear back right away, I requested it again. And also reached out to the author to squeal at her. Thankfully, Edelweiss came through, and I soon had a fresh, shiny ARC on my Nook.
I plowed this book in a day. I considered savoring it, taking my time with it, but I just couldn’t. The characters were too fascinating; the plot was too intense. O’Dell has created an amazing pastiche, and I cannot recommend it enough.
The worldbuilding is, in some ways, sparse—O’Dell doesn’t spend a lot of time providing an info dump, especially given the book takes place in the near future. Yet despite the sparse worldbuilding, it all works, because of how close it takes place to our present. The things described are all too plausible, all too real, for better or worse. A second Civil War is happening when the book opens. Janet Watson is a veteran of that war, her arm destroyed in the fighting and fitted with a prosthetic that feels only one generation removed from current prosthetic advancements (and, in many ways, doesn’t quite live up to current prosthetic science, as Janet is given one that doesn’t quite suit her; much of her struggle throughout the book is navigating the VA, trying to get a prosthetic that actually works correctly for her, something we’ve all certainly read about or perhaps personally experienced). Sara Holmes has a device that allows the Internet to be downloaded right into her brain, something that seems too real as things like Google Glass come onto the market; it’s not too far a stretch to imagine that soon we’ll just have implants in our head.
Sara Holmes herself is an enigma, at times frustratingly so. I wish there had been a more explicit conversation about what, precisely, she does, as I found the secrecy around her work confusing for the reader, and not just for Janet, but despite that issue, I found her utterly charming. I can easily see someone falling under her spell and being endlessly intrigued by her. I loved the updates to the classic Holmes; I can absolutely see Victorian Holmes wanting implants that would give him access to all the information in the world. I was tickled by the fact that Sara Holmes plays the piano, rather than the violin. Her solicitous nature with Janet was adorable. Though Watsons are always intrigued by Holmeses, it’s so rare to really see, in depth, a Holmes intrigued by a Watson, as Sara clearly is with Janet. And her masterful quality was hilarious, especially since it always put Janet on her back foot.
I will fully admit that I found the plot somewhat convoluted at times. I think a second read through would make things clearer to me, and others may not have that problem; as I said, I read this book so quickly, I could easily have missed things. Despite knowing that I missed things, I found the mystery absolutely heart-wrenching. I don’t want to get into it much, as I feel like anything I write about it leads to spoilers, but the victims are what drive the case, and drive Janet the entire time. Her determination to give them justice drove the story. It was wonderfully done, and I still tear up when I think of Belinda Diaz.
I would like to add in a good word for the secondary characters as well. Jacob Bell, RN Roberta Thompson, Saul Martinez, even the weasely Terrence Smith, are richly drawn. I would love to see some of them become recurring characters, because I loved them as much as I loved Janet and Sara.
There are two particular things I want to mention about this book that might give people pause. It is a very political book, and if you are looking to escape politics for the time being, you may wish to consider this; and most importantly, this book about two queer Black women is written by a white woman. As a white woman myself, I do not feel qualified to say if she did well by the characters in terms of their race. However, here is what I do know: O’Dell’s editor is Amber Oliver, a Black woman; she lists having taken a Writing the Other workshop in her acknowledgements; she had many readers look over her book. It does appear she has done some work in trying to avoid stereotypes and poor representation.
I am very much looking forward to owning a copy of this book when it comes out in July. I suspect it will take a place of honour on my Sherlock Holmes shelves, as it’s certainly one of the most ambitious and intriguing pastiches I’ve read in a while.
What About Our Watson?
This is entirely Janet Watson’s book. I have read a number of fine Watsons in my goal of providing reviews for the Society. Some of them have even been excellent. But Janet really takes the cake, because she isn’t a strong-willed narrator of Holmes’ adventures, as so frequently happens. Instead, Janet is entirely her own person, with her own hopes and dreams and loves and history outside of Holmes, and the book focuses on her struggles and desires as she steps into a realm that has always been helmed by a Holmes.
I want to spend a moment on Watson as a war veteran. One of my ongoing… I won’t say frustrations, but perhaps disappointments, is that pastiche writers don’t do more with Watson post-war. I have always wanted to see a Watson with a more consistent war wound than ACD gave him, one that impacts him in a real way. I’ve also always hoped that some writer (whether of a book or a film/TV show) would explore the idea of Watson having PTSD, as there is certainly fodder for such in canon. I’ve seen the occasional pastiche or adaptation make an attempt, but across the board, it’s been rather half-hearted. A Study in Honor, though, stares unflinchingly at Janet Watson’s war wounds, both physical and mental. Much of Janet’s internal conflict comes from her struggles to get a prosthesis that actually works, and her turmoil over losing her arm and learning to adapt in a world that has little interest in adapting for her. Her PTSD is visceral, in a way that I finally recognize, with certain sounds, phrases, smells, triggering flashbacks and memories. She regularly sees a therapist, and opens up to her, attempting to heal and thrive, rather than remain stuck in her survival instincts. The depiction of trauma in this book, with Janet and with others, is raw and hard and beautifully done.
Janet is also a woman who takes no shit from her Holmes, which everyone knows I’m a sucker for. I like a Watson who is willing to push back, to demand respect, to even yell at times at a Holmes. I like a Watson who won’t be steamrolled. Janet is that kind of Watson. While she concedes certain battles (I teared up about the journal), she is also willing to fight back against Holmes and her casual acceptance that she’s in control at all times. I loved the ongoing sneakiness over the text device, for example, and Watson’s dismissal of the gifts that Holmes continued to offer. I laughed heartily over her continued rejection of Holmes’ pet names for her. Janet Watson clearly trusts Sara Holmes, but also refuses to blithely accept her word; she wants answers and explanations, and demands them when Sara is less than immediately forthcoming.
Janet is deeply loyal, to her patients, to her military comrades, and Holmes, as well as compassionate; she is also tenacious and stubborn, qualities I do love in a Watson. Her determination to heal, to solve the case, to bring justice to the victims is present throughout the entire story. I can think of nothing better to sum it up than to provide a quote from Janet’s journal (journaling is important throughout the entire book; we frequently get to read Janet’s journal as she writes it): “I WILL HAVE MY VICTORY. I WILL HAVE MY LIFE BACK. I SWEAR IT.”
I really can’t ask for more from my Watsons. Janet is an absolute treat, and I think any Watsonian will love her.
You Might Like This Book If You Like:
Dystopian futures; recovery stories; tough yet vulnerable women protagonists; conspiracy theories
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