Victorians, Vampires, and Steampunk—Oh, My!

The Spiritglass Charade: A Stoker & Holmes Novel, by Colleen Gleason, (Chronicle Books), 360 pages

The Spiritglass Charade is the second volume in Colleen Gleason’s young adult Stoker & Holmes series (the first was The Clockwork Scarab). Stoker and Holmes are not Bram and Sherlock. They’re Evaline (Bram’s younger sister) and Alvermina Holmes (niece of Sherlock, daughter of Mycroft). These women live in a steampunk, alternate version of Victorian England and work as investigators for the government, taking on cases that require female detectives.

The two women make an interesting team. Alvermina, who goes by the less-cumbersome Mina, lives with the company of a housekeeper. Her mother left the family. Her father is almost always occupied elsewhere on government business. She, like her better-known uncle, is highly logical and expert in all sorts of abstruse fields, what might be called a “right brain” type. She thinks of herself as plain—she has the “Holmes nose.”

Evaline, in contrast, is wealthier, a member of society by virtue of her brother’s theatrical fame, highly impetuous and intuitive and absolutely confident in her own attractiveness, what might be called a “left brain” type. She is also—surprise!—a venator: a hunter of vampires.

Given Evaline’s calling as a venator, it’s not surprising that working together is challenging for both women. Mina is reluctant to believe in the supernatural world Evaline inhabits. Evaline is irritated by Mina’s methodicalness—when the undead are present, immediate action is called for.

I admit that I am growing attached to these two young women. Reading The Clockwork Scarab, I wasn’t certain how successful this series would be. Now I’m hooked. This isn’t highbrow reading, but it’s too much fun to be missed. Besides Mina and Evaline the reader meets Irene Adler (of Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia”), employed by both the British Museum and the government’s intelligence-gathering arm; Dylan, an unwilling time-traveler from our Twenty-first Century; and Pix, a mysterious, sometimes threatening, presence in the London underworld, who deals in illicit electricity—this being a steampunk England, all means of power besides steam are outlawed.

In this England, cities are built in multiple layers and one must be able to afford fare for an elevator to move between them. The upper levels are supported by hot-air balloons. This is an age of invention, and nearly every apparatus imaginable has been invented, in a steam version, of course. There are equivalents to Segways and motorcycles, automated holders and page-turners for newspapers, even “Hystand’s Mechanized Eyelash-Combe.” If you can allow yourself to accept this improbable and uneven body of technology, you’ll have quite a good time.

In this volume, the two women are working on behalf of the Princess of Whales, who is concerned about a friend who has become prey to unscrupulous spiritualists as she attempts to contact her dead mother and locate her missing brother. Mina, of course, is determined to prove these spiritualist frauds; Evaline, while suspicious, feels they may well be genuine (there’s also the matter of a pair of mediums who know her childhood nickname of “Linney-Lou”).

My one complaint here is how quickly and completely both Mina and Evaline are beguiled by handsome young men. They’re delightful examples of independent young womanhood, but one wearies of them blushing in the presence of a number of young men who are recurring characters in the series. In their favor, however, they walk a fine line between the mores of their time and their own determination to live life as they choose. They fret regularly about propriety, but also acknowledge the pleasure of being kissed.

If you know a young woman in her mid-to-late teens, this book is apt to make an excellent gift, an invitation to fun and adventure, made even more interesting by its imaginative setting. And if, like me, you’re an adult reader, you’ll still enjoy this book as a sort of mini-vacation between other, more demanding volumes.

October 09 2014 06:12 am | Uncategorized

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