Tag Archives: book reviews

Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars: The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas

25 May

9780439828369_p0_v2_s260x420As a Sherlockian, I was excited when I heard about Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars: The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas, even though it came out in 2006. That goes to show how behind the times I am, but Tracy Mack and Michael Citrin created a book well worth visiting. It’s an excellent read for late elementary and middle school readers who are intrigued by Sherlock Holmes or the mystery genre.

The novel, the first in a series, focuses on the Baker Street Irregulars, Sherlock Holmes’s network of street urchins who help him in his cases. In the original canon stories, little is known about them, except that the leader of the group is named Wiggins. The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas follows Wiggins and his gang, particularly Ozzie, an orphan who works for a heartless scrivener.

The mystery starts as a simple one: How did the tightrope-walking Zalindas fall to their deaths at a nearby circus? Evidence suggests it was an accident, but foul play is suspected. This mystery gives way to a greater one involving a priceless book.

I immediately felt sympathy for Ozzie, who shows enough cleverness to impress the great detective himself. The rest of the gang is given character as well: the tough leader Wiggins, Alfie, who makes up for his small size with fierceness, a kind Punjabi boy named Rohan, and Eliot, an Irish seamster.

Although the group is strictly a boys’ club, investigations at the circus lead them to a fortune-teller’s daughter, Pilar. She insists on helping them, and her stubbornness and bravery results in Holmes calling her “a little Irene Adler” – a huge compliment considering that Adler was “The Woman”, one of the few women Holmes ever admired!

Sherlock Holmes is a secondary character to the boys in this story, but an important mentor to the boys. Coauthor Michael Citrin is a Sherlock Holmes fan and it shows- there are lots of canonical references and nods throughout the story.

One thing that broke my heart about the book, though, was the reduction of Holmes’s assistant Watson to a rather mean-spirited buffoon who didn’t help in investigations and disliked the Irregulars throughout the story. I suppose that taking Watson out of the equation gives the boys more opportunity to interact with Holmes, but so many adaptations and pastiches already give poor Watson the short end of the stick.

The book contains a satisfying story by itself, but it also sets up bigger questions for the series. Will Ozzie find out who his father is? How will the boys’ relationships with each other grow and change?

The book also contains several full-page illustrations done by Greg Ruth, which are done in pen and ink and have an appropriately timeless feel to them. And keep your eye out for out of place bold letters in the text. A secret message is threaded through the book!

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Review: His Dark Assassins Series

17 Dec

I love historical fiction, but a common problem that I find is that the author rewrites history to suit our modern sensibilities, giving characters modern thoughts or behaving in ways inappropriate to their historical context. This is especially tricky when trying to write strong female characters; how do you create awesome, strong female characters which still fit in the context of their times? I am in no way saying that there were not strong females throughout history, but understanding their strength often requires some social context of the times, which can be a lot to cram into a novel.

This issue can be resolved by impressive writers, but there is yet another solution! Alternate histories offer the best of both worlds; a rich historical background (to the extent that it serves the story), and the flexibility to create culture as one would in a fantasy world. This means the author can pick and choose what they want to use in their world, which can create a fantastic yarn without the worries of accurately portraying the social context.

The first two books of Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassins trilogy uses this genre to its best possible use, using the backdrop of 15th century Brittany (more or less keeping the political history and adding some interesting religion twists) for her story of empowered female assassins. I’ll give a brief rundown of the two books that are out so far, Grave Mercy and Dark TriumphMild Spoilers Ahead.

url Grave Mercy- First off, let me do my obligatory whine about the asinine Pretty White Girl cover art. Ugh. Why. Why. The art turned me off of the book right away, but I am so grateful that I got past the cover and kept reading, because LaFevers’ writing is gripping and lovely. She immediately plunges us into the world and mind of Ismae, who begins as a turnip farmer’s daughter doomed to be married off to a lecherous man. She is soon sent to a convent where daughters of Mortaine (aka Death Himself) train to become assassins. As one of his daughters, Ismae can see marks on people that Mortaine has chosen for death, and she carries out his will. This soon plunges her into a political intrigue involving a 12-year-old duchess inheriting a duchy of Brittany (which is historically-based), and into an unexpected romance. Ismae also begins questioning the motives of the convent where she trained after she sees Mortaine and finds a whole new understanding of her destiny. In the end she chooses to use death and the freeing of the soul as an act of mercy to those suffering, instead of as vengeance, a clear departure from how she was trained. This plants the idea that institutions can veer away from their original intent, and also demonstrates how groups that seem good can still be flawed or make wrong decisions.

url-1Dark Triumph continues this theme, and it follows a completely different character from Grave Mercy‘s Ismae. Sybella was also convent-trained, but her similarities to Ismae end there. When we readers are first introduced to Sybella’s thoughts, she is a dark-minded and very troubled woman, wishing for death. Whereas Ismae did her assassinations as duties, Sybella loves seeking vengeance. Throughout the book we learn why she is so troubled and cynical; she is raised by a monstrous nobleman, sought after by an incestuous brother, and has seen terrible death and gone through loss and pain. She is more blatantly rebellious against the convent than Ismae is in the first novel, and as the political plot of the young duchess continues to unfold, Sybella begins to heal and starts a romance with Beast, the ugly, strong warrior who also appeared in the first book. They’re oddly perfect together, and it’s refreshing to see two books in a series that approach romance so well, and yet so differently from each other. The growth that Sybella goes through from beginning to end is organic and realistic, and the ending will make the reader be scrambling for the third book, which will feature yet another of Mortaine’s daughters.