Mina Holmes and Evangeline Stoker have quite the legacy to live up to.
The year is 1889, and Queen Victoria rules Britain—a Britain in which electricity has been outlawed, and steam dominates all technology. Young Mina Holmes, niece of the famous Sherlock, is desperate to do something more with her life than attend soirees and land a husband (e.g. the lofty goal to which society dictates well-bred girls like Mina should aspire). With her intelligence and formidable powers of observation, Mina yearns for the chance to prove herself as every bit as brilliant as her Uncle and father.
Evangeline Stoker is another young woman with a daunting family legacy. The youngest in a long line of vampire hunters, Evangeline is gifted with supernatural speed, strength and the ability to sense the undead. The only problem? The undead aren’t really around in 1889 (her ancestors having killed most of the vampires plaguing Britain). Still, Evangeline trains and monitors the city, always hoping that she’ll finally get her chance to slay her first vampire and live up to the legacy of her forebears.
Both Mina and Evangeline are girls desperate for an opportunity—and then one arrives in the post. The girls have been chosen by Irene Adler (yes, that Irene Adler) to serve the crown as secret agents, and have been assigned their very first case. Society girls have been disappearing and showing up dead—each death connected by a clockwork scarab. Together, young misses Holmes and Stoker dive into dangerous and baffling investigation—one that leads to secret societies, Egyptian mythology, and even time travel.
The first novel in a planned series, The Clockwork Scarab is a delightful, diverting read—one that seems like it shouldn’t work, yet somehow it does. I say that because, on the surface, Colleen Gleason’s novel has a lot of disparate elements which seem to dangerously tip the carefully calibrated scale of suspended disbelief. After all, The Clockwork Scarab boasts not only Sherlock Holmes’ niece and Bram Stoker’s little sister, but also an alternate history of London (electricity has been outlawed as dangerous for society), the existence of vampires and time travel. In particular, the time travel aspect—in which a visitor from present day shows up in Victorian London with a smartphone—is the wild card that gets me the most.
And yet, I repeat: The Clockwork Scarab shouldn’t work, yet somehow it does.
I attribute this success to two factors: Gleason’s gift for deft storytelling, plus the amazing voice employed for Mina Holmes. On the storytelling front, Gleason gleefully manages all of these disparate add-ons—time travel, vampires, the works—without any hesitation, and to the author’s credit, all of these elements are neatly folded into the mystery. On the character front, though the narrative voice shifts between Mina and Evangeline, in my opinion, Mina is the main protagonist of this novel. She’s wickedly smart but also socially awkward and bossy (as expressed by a resentful Evangeline on multiple occasions)—more than that, though, there’s something about Mina’s loneliness and her need for validation that feels incredibly genuine and memorable.
While there are many things to praise in The Clockwork Scarab, this is by no means a perfect book. Protagonist Evangeline Stoker, for example, is intended to be the muscle to Mina’s brains—and while she is that, she’s also a dull heroine who is characterized solely by her brashness and her physical strength. (And, I might add, despite her physical speed and strength, she’s alarmingly always caught off guard by a handsome rogue named Pix, with whom, of course, Evangeline shares smoldering kisses.) Beyond Evangeline’s lackluster storyline, the other thing that bothered me about the book was its insidious tendency to assign male love interests to the main characters—the aforementioned Pix, as well as a surly inspector who battles wills with Mina, and a boy from the future. That, and the actual mystery underlying the novel is resolved fairly easily and involves honest-to-goodness Egyptian magic (which always makes me feel uncomfortable and treads into appropriative territory).
All things said, I think this bears repeating one last time: The Clockwork Scarab shouldn’t work, yet somehow it does.
In Book Smugglerish, 7 clockwork beetles out of 10.