Wednesday, October 19, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “Shadowfall: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes”

Tracy Revels; Publisher:  MX Publishing (March 2011)
He reached inside his coat and removed his cigarette case.  He spoke a word in an unknown language as he waved his hand over the silver box.  The container suddenly shone like a beacon, brighter than any lantern, and I turned aside, eyes burning.  There was a click as he opened it, and a tiny point of golden light shot from the container.  I heard a sound like a great buzzing.
“Holmes, is that an insect?”
“It is the humble apis mellifera, or western honeybee.  He is noted for his industry and strength and unfailing ability to find that for which he seeks.”  Holmes held out his palm, and the creature descended onto his flesh, wings drawn back against its striped body, still glowing with an unnatural light (70).
Of the recent book reviews on this blog, they all seem to present a common theme: Dr. Watson as an absent character, or at the very least, as an absent narrator.  We’ve looked at books that feature characters acting in Watson’s place, narrating the story from their own perspective, or that have been written from an omniscient point-of-view that precludes having the direct access to Watson’s thoughts that so many readers enjoy.  Of the fifty-six short stories and four novels in the canon, only four of them are not written from the Doctor’s perspective.  “The Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow” are written from a third person perspective.  In “The Gloria Scott,” and “The Musgrave Ritual,” Sherlock Holmes relates the primary mystery to Watson from his own memories, but the Doctor still frames and narrates the initial story.  And “The Blanched Solider” and “The Lion’s Mane,” from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, are written from Holmes’s perspective.  In LAST, Sherlock Holmes famously names Watson as “the one fixed point in changing age,” and the Doctor’s narration is often a guiding influence, piloting the reader through a murky sea of mystery.  Furthermore, as has been discussed elsewhere, the reader must often completely trust Dr. Watson, in order for the plot device to work.
And so, Tracy Revels’s Shadowfall is a perfect example of trusting Dr. Watson as a narrator—trusting that the story he ultimately delivers is complete and entire, that he is telling the truth, and that he writes with the understanding that reader will believe him.  From the start, Revels’s novel finds Watson’s skepticism stretched to its absolute limits, as he finds himself plunged into a world filled with fairies and shadows.  It is a world in which his own immortal soul is stolen by Titania, the fairy high queen, in a desperate bid for Sherlock Holmes’s assistance.  A world in which the sacred and mystical objects of London are disappearing, prophesying doom and destruction.  A world in which the Great Detective is not what he appears to be:
What are you, Holmes?”
“There is no true word for it, but the closest term would be a Merlin, a wizard.  I inherited the powers of magic from my mother’s immortal house, even as I gained my height and my hair from my mortal father’s” (45).
Now, it goes without saying that placing Sherlock Holmes in a supernatural setting—not to mention making him a supernatural being—is not going to be to everyone’s taste.  After all, Holmes himself said, “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain.  The world is big enough for us.  No ghosts need apply” (SUSS).  But Revels approaches the subject intelligently, and the methods of her version of the Great Detective are still recognizable.  His deductive abilities are paired equally with his magical talents, and Holmes does not begin suddenly casting spells with impunity once he has revealed his true nature to Dr. Watson.  For example, after extracting some needed information from a group of laborers, using nothing but a bit of clever repartee, Holmes turns to Watson with a smile: “No magic was necessary, as you witnessed” (80).
Likewise, Revels’s Dr. Watson approaches his friend’s revelation with a sensible amount of incredulity.  When Holmes produces a flame from the tip of his finger, and lights the Doctor’s cigarette, Watson says: “Any Covent Garden conjurer could do the same” (46).  Watson as the narrator of this story is incisive and perceptive—both the companion that Holmes does not deserve, but also the one that he needs.  It is Watson who knows Holmes better than he knows himself, and who knows why the Great Detective could never subsist entirely on a deductive diet of magical abilities (even if he occupies a world where such things exist): “At that moment, I began to understand why he had returned to the world of the Sun.  Magic and enchantments were less satisfying to him than the superb command of his own intelligence.  There was a greater thrill in being a reasoning machine than in wielding supernatural forces” (80).
Tracy Revels has a clever and delicious way with words, and the world of Shadowfall is fully formed and beautifully imagined—from the dazzling and terrifying Queen Titania who steals Watson’s soul, to Holmes’s tiny and ethereal honeybee familiar.  Revels’s story is carefully and artfully constructed.  It would be easy for an author to merely transpose the Detective’s deductive methods for supernatural ones, thereby explaining away Holmes’s sometimes inhuman ability to know “by a man’s finger-nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs—by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed” (STUD).  But by incorporating and combining both the canonical aspects of Sherlock Holmes’s character, and her fresh perspective, Tracy Revels has written a cerebral pastiche, one that speaks to both focus and fantasy.
Tracy Revels’s sequel, Shadowblood, will be available from MX Publishing in November 2011.  Order the book here.
Shadowfall: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes, by Tracy Revels is available in paperback from MX Publishing, and Amazon.  It is also available for the Kindle.  You can also follow the author on Twitter and on Facebook.
Speaking of Facebook, “Better Holmes & Gardens” now has its own Facebook page.  Join by “Liking” the page here, and receive all the latest updates, news, and Sherlockian tidbits.


  1. The connection of Holmes and Merlin is certainly apt. They both knew well how to dazzle upon first introduction! It sounds like a fascinating stretch of the whole Holmes-Watson schema and their rational world, since, as you say, it seems to defy their most treasured premises.

    "But by incorporating and combining both the canonical aspects of Sherlock Holmes’s character, and her fresh perspective, Tracy Revels has written a cerebral pastiche, one that speaks to both focus and fantasy."

    Such high praise for Revel's novel from you certainly leads me to seek it out, especially to add to my fantasy shelf.

  2. Very interesting. The idea of Holmes using magic, being a 'Merlin', is slightly off-putting at first, but your descriptions of the quality of writing and true-to-form Watson are enough to make me curious to say the least. I seem to remember looking at this book, actually, and dismissing it (though I can't remember the exact reason why I did so). Looks like I'll be picking it up after all!

  3. @Lucy: Revels wrote a compelling novel, and I'm eager to get my hands on the sequel. She approaches an uncanny premise in a smart way, and like I said, it's not as if Holmes suddenly produces a magic wand and starts casting spells. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a *believable* premise, but it's certainly palatable, particularly for those who don't like to see Holmes in a supernatural setting. I liked it a great deal, and I'd love to hear what you think! :-)

    @KateM: Sherlock Holmes in a supernatural setting isn't everyone's cup of tea, so I can easily imagine why some people would pass this one over. But like you said, there's quite a bit to recommend to it. Watson is true-to-form, and the mystery itself is very compelling. Revels's version of Holmes's background does work to explain a bit of the Detective's...grandness, for lack of a better term. It's a really fun novel, and sometimes that's the best thing.