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What a promising premise to Colleen Gleason's first "Stoker and Holmes" novel, The Clockwork Scarab (2013)! Irene Adler, AKA "the woman," 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.
10 of 10 people found this review helpful
What made the experience of listening to The Clockwork Scarab the most enjoyable?
Other reviewers complained about this book being for teens only. Trash! A good story is a good story… and one that's smart and fun, even better! I am not ready to leave Steampuke London, or Mina & Evaline just yet… so I guess I'll be listening to this again, soon!
What was one of the most memorable moments of The Clockwork Scarab?
Not wanting to give anything away, I just loved the way Mina & Evaline butted heads in their efforts to work together. I loved the way the author let us be in both their heads, seeing through their eyes.
What does Jayne Entwhistle bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
EVERYTHING!!! I've listened to Jayne before, as Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce (amazing books!) I have never read this author before, and gave it a try mostly because of Jayne Entwhistle! Great narration, great story!
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
If only I could, but I am sure that would be grounds for divorce.
Any additional comments?
What great characters Mina Holmes and Evaline Stoker are, and putting them in a Steampunk version of 1890's London, inspired! Now, where is Book 2!!!!!
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
So this was a bit of a surprise for me. For one, it absolutely flew by. It ended and I was actually surprised because despite everything wrapping up quite nicely, I was prepared for more.
Jayne Entwistle does a fabulous job of reading this. The next book in the series is on my audible wishlist and so are a few of her other readings.
I liked the distinct voices. Even if I wasn't paying attention to the beginning of the chapter, where it told you who the narrator was, I was never lost. It wasn't just the voices that the actress was giving the characters were different, it's that the characters themselves were so distinct.
This plays on Sherlock canon, adds a dash of Steampunk and a touch of time-travel, picks up some Bram Stoker on the way and then runs madly into the wild, flailing its arms around hoping to pick up some ancient Egyptian lore. And it's excellent.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?
No I have none hence listening to audiobooks all day.
Would you be willing to try another book from Colleen Gleason? Why or why not?
I'll continue with the series, the characters are all likeable, that's the most important thing to me in most books. too many people aren't.
What does Jayne Entwistle bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you had only read the book?
I bought this book because of Ms Entwhistle having listened to her on the Flavia de luce series, the narrator on audible is not as good so I had to get them from iTunes. ||||||
|She has a lovely tone to her voice though one criticism I have is that it is difficult to concentrate on which character is speaking at any time, I feel Stoker and Holmes sound too similar. It would be improved if one of them sounded more distinct say like Daphne in the De luce novels.
Any additional comments?
Joyfully not a Vampire (or vampyre if your cool) in sight. Like the Theodosia series ancient Egypt makes a welcome return.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
After the Gardella Chronicles this is a wonderful start to a spin off collection with Bram Stokers sister and Sherlock Holmes niece it makes for a new take on old favorites