#REVIEW: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, by Alexis Hall

I first encountered this book through Twitter, and I’ve completely lost track of how; I’m not even sure if it was specifically recommended to me or whether I just happened across someone being enthusiastic about it. At any rate, I’m mad at everyone else who has read it. Why? Because all of you should have recommended this book to me– yes, to me specifically, whether you know who the hell I am or not– because I’m pretty sure this book was written for me and me alone.

This is another “tell you the premise, and then I’m done” sort of book. The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, starring a bisexual, amoral sorceress named Shaharazad Haas in the Holmes role and a transexual gay man(*) named John Wyndham in the role of Watson. The book starts off as a clear homage to A Study in Scarlet, as Wyndham arrives in the city of Khelathra-Ven as a wounded veteran of a war in another dimension, in need of a job and housing, and ends up answering an ad for a place at 221B Martyrs Lane, where he meets Haas.

Who immediately attempts to shoot him.

You may have noticed the word sorceress. Wyndham is very Victorian British in his comportment and his morals, and Alexis Hall’s ability to mimic the writing style of the Holmes stories is flat-out uncanny, but the rest of the book is pure eldritch horror, where I want to compare it to Lovecraft but the simple fact is that I think Alexis Hall out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft. He does forbidden knowledge Man is not meant to taste very, very well, and Haas might be the single most memorable practitioner of magic I’ve ever encountered. They end up in Carcosa for a while. There are byakhees. And vampires. And Wyndham fights a shark. Their landlady is an intelligent swarm of bees inhabiting a corpse. Well, two, actually, as one rots away enough to become useless over the course of the book and she needs to acquire another.

It’s absolutely delicious.

So, yeah, while it goes without saying that this book gets one of my highest recommendations; I will admit I have some slight criticisms of the overall structure of the story. Affair starts off with five suspects for a blackmail and then has basically five sub-quests where people are progressively ruled out; it sounds weird to both say that I loved a book and that it could have been a bit shorter, but any time you build in that structure where there are Five Things to Be Accomplished, you end up with a book that sort of has the feel of a video game and by the end of it the reader kind of wants to get to the point. I combatted this by reading the book somewhat more slowly than I might have expected from something I was enjoying as much as I was; I actually dragged this one out a bit rather than devouring it at a sitting, which is my normal move.

But … God, you need to read this. I think right now it’s planned as a one-shot, which is a damned shame if it’s true, because (much like Watson) Wyndham is writing this story from the perspective of twenty years in the future, when Haas is actually dead, and there are tons of references to other mysteries and other adventures. I want to read these stories; I have got to have more of Shaharazad Haas in my life, because she is utterly fascinating as a character. Another thing I haven’t mentioned is the humor; there’s more than a little of Douglas Adams’ DNA in this book. In fact, I took this picture and sent it to a friend of mine who I was pitching the book for, and I might as well include it here as a quote:

Wyndham’s unwillingness to swear or repeat profanity in the text of the story, and his squeamishness around women, and his frequent asides to his editor are all fantastically dry humor, and I laughed out loud several times while reading the book, once loud enough that my son emerged from another room to ask me what was so funny. The boy notices nothing, so this is quite an achievement.

Anyway, yeah, you want this one. Go pick it up.

(*) I actually need to have a conversation with someone about the trans angle, because, I admit, I completely missed it on my first read, and upon seeing some references to it on Goodreads went back and reread the first chapter, where a single sentence refers to Wyndham “becoming himself for the first time,” or something very similar. I don’t think I missed a ton of references, and that sentence strikes me as something that’s going to have immediate salience for a trans reader that it might not for a cisgendered one. Then again, I read Gideon the Ninth twice and Harrowhark the Ninth once before realizing that Harrowhark was Harrowhark and not Harrowhawk, so occasionally I am absolutely a blinkered idiot.

#REVIEW: THE ANGEL OF THE CROWS, by Katherine Addison

Katherine Addison’s two books have a theme, which is that I don’t quite know what to think about them when I finish them. I loved her debut, The Goblin Emperor, but my review reads like I hated it, and nothing I could do while working on it could remove that tone so I gave up and rolled with it.

The Angel of the Crows is one of those books where once you know the premise you know whether you want to read the book or not. It apparently started off as the literary equivalent of a palate cleanser; Addison admits in the afterword that the book was originally Sherlock Holmes wingfic, which is not a thing I knew existed: it is a subgenre of fanfic where characters are given wings, because Reasons. The main character, Dr. J.H. Doyle, is a stand-in for Watson, right down to having been injured in Afghanistan, and his roommate at 221 Baker Street, Crow, is the Holmes of the series.

Except Crow is an angel, and Doyle’s injury was dealt by a fallen angel in Afghanistan, and rather inconveniently has transformed him into a hellhound, which is not quite a werewolf because there are werewolves in the book too. And vampires. And a whole mess of other things. So this is basically Sherlock Holmes fanfic crossed with an urban fantasy book, except doing away with the standard trope of urban fantasy, which is that all of the nonhumans everywhere are generally unknown to the general public. Also, they end up hunting Jack the Ripper, because of course they do. I thought for a moment she’d found a way to work Rasputin into it too, but that turns out to not be the case.

The thing is, the book just misses being great. Its first chapter might be one of the best first chapters I’ve ever read, particularly in how it handles basic worldbuilding and letting you know what sort of story you’re in for. The problem is the structure of the book– the Jack the Ripper thing is a common thread through several more or less independent sections, each of which basically retells a single Sherlock Holmes story. As a single, unified novel, it ends up feeling really choppy, and if you are like me and you are fairly familiar with the Holmes stories, it ends up dragging quite a bit by the end of its 460 pages. The Ripper throughplot also ends somewhat unsatisfyingly, mostly because it doesn’t have room to be handled properly.

I really wish this had been a series of novellas, is what I’m getting at; crammed all together into one book it simultaneously feels too long and that each individual story is rushed, and that’s not a good way for a book to feel. As a novella series there could have been a bit more room to breathe and a bit more worldbuilding, because I absolutely want to know more about this world and see more of these characters, hopefully keeping the Holmes framework but not literally feeling the need to retell The Hound of the Baskervilles. If I find out she’s written a sequel, I’m still all over it.

The next section will involve discussing a major spoiler, so feel free to not read it if such things will bother you.

Before I say anything here, I want to make it clear that I’m using the pronouns the book uses, and that this is kind of a messy thing to talk about, so if anyone feels like I’ve screwed something up in my language, 1) you are probably right, and 2) feel free to call me out about it and I’ll rewrite if necessary.

So, Dr. J.H. Doyle, referred to almost exclusively as either “Doyle” or “Dr. Doyle” throughout the book, is … well, definitely assigned female at birth, and I could probably safely justify simply saying “a woman.” Doyle is referred to as “he” almost exclusively throughout the book, and even once it’s made clear to Crow that Doyle presents as a man because women would not have had opportunities to go fight in Afghanistan and become doctors, Crow continues to refer to Doyle as male even in private conversations between the two of them. I have seen some blurbs and commentary about this book that talks about trans characters, and that language is absent from the book and it’s not entirely clear how Doyle feels about his gender.

This gets especially weird in the retelling of The Sign of the Four, which ends with Watson getting married; in Addison’s retelling, Miss Morstan expects Doyle to propose to her at the end, and Doyle instead tells her that he cannot ask her to marry him because, quote, “I’m not a man,” and a moment later refers to himself as “my father’s only daughter.” But there is never any other point in the book, again, including in private, where Doyle seems to genuinely think of himself (there’s that pronoun difficulty again) as female, and even the conversation with Miss Morstan only happens because Doyle feels forced into a corner. There’s also not any angst at any point about having to lie to everyone; Doyle seems perfectly content with presenting as male to everyone. And it’s also clear that Doyle is at least attracted to Miss Morstan. The entire marriage expectation bit all comes off as really awkward and part of me wonders why Addison didn’t simply omit that subplot. Or, hell, pull a Some Like It Hot and make her good with it.

Also, remember, Doyle is a hellhound, so the character spends all sorts of energy on hiding his identity from people throughout the book. There is considerable angst about the hellhoundery.

This is followed up with a sequence where Crow, who is also referred to with exclusively male pronouns, explains that all angels are female, “insofar as it makes sense to apply gender to asexual beings,” but that some of them basically just present as male, because … well, because Reasons, I guess; I never felt like I adequately understood what was going on there.

So, yeah, if this book landed on your radar because of trans representation, that’s not quite what’s going on here, although it’s … close, I guess? Maybe? I dunno.

12:03 PM, Sunday June 28th: 2,520,984 confirmed cases and 125,588 Americans dead.