Monday, September 19, 2016

Down the Stacks #37: A Study in Sable

Normally, I try not to spotlight the same author multiple times in a row on Down the Stacks, but when I went to return Home from the Sea to the library I saw this week’s book, A Study in Sable, by Mercedes Lackey, on the New Books display and I couldn’t resist.

A Study in Sable is the latest entry in “The Elemental Masters” series, and the third such book to star the psychically-gifted girls, Sarah Lyon-White and Nan Killian.  It takes place some undetermined time after Home from the Sea and opens with Sarah and Nan, along with the birds Grey and Neville, going to 221-B Baker Street to convince Sherlock Holmes that their powers are legitimate.  They do this at the request of John Watson, who happens to be an Elemental Master in this universe, so that he can bring Sarah and Nan in to help with certain cases without Sherlock complaining about “superstitious twaddle” more than he already does.  Sherlock stubbornly refuses to admit that magic is real, but telepathy and interacting with ghosts fit into his logic.
The girls’ first case with Watson is putting an end to an evil, shadowy haunt that nearly killed Sarah and Nan as kids.  After that, the meat of book surrounds Nan helping Watson and Sherlock on small cases while Sarah gets hired to free a German opera singer from a legion of ghosts that are plaguing her nights.  When Sarah starts acting a little too enamored with the prima donna, however, Nan starts to suspect there’s more than just a simple, if exceptionally large, haunting problem going on.

A Study in Sable is more Nan’s story than it is Sarah’s, in contrast to The Wizard of London where Sarah was the main focus and Home from the Sea where both girls played supporting roles.  Nan gets the majority of the scenes and perspective focus, and her set of gifts are explored in greater depth, including the limits of her telepathy and the influence of the Celtic warrior woman she’s capable of channeling in dangerous situations.
Mercedes Lackey’s take on Sherlock Holmes and John Watson fits well with other depictions of the characters, although Sherlock isn’t particularly cranky aside from his frequent eye-rolling when magic is being discussed in his presence, and Watson proves to be a capable detective in his own right due to needing to take on magic-based cases without Sherlock’s help.  Watson’s wife, Mary, is another major character and an Elemental Master in her own right, but since I can’t recall seeing her in other Sherlock adaptations I can’t compare this version’s character - Watson’s equal in most respects - to other depictions.  Mary is, at least, a typical example of an independant-thinking Lackey character.
Rounding out the central cast of A Study in Sable is Suki, a little, psychic girl that Sarah and Nan rescued from a charlatan and adopted.  Suki is very much a younger version of Nan: she has Nan’s suite of psychic gifts, minus the “takeover by earlier incarnation” thing, the Cockney accent Nan has long since trained herself out of, and the appreciation of the value of an education.  Suki helps round out scenes in the girls’s apartment, and eventually she starts helping Nan and the Watsons on a few cases.  She’s a precocious kid who deftly avoids the problems of being a new character squeezed into an existing dynamic.
Puck is frequently mentioned throughout the book, but makes only one appearance in a fairly inconsequential scene, as he considers Sarah and Nan old and experienced enough to take care of themselves and most of the book takes place in urban environments where even an immeasurably ancient and powerful spirit like him isn’t comfortable hanging around.

A Study in Sable is one of the best entries in the Elemental Masters series.  The series as a whole tends to vary a lot in quality, as Mercedes Lackey seems to be experimenting with different storytelling styles throughout it.  I think the three Sarah and Nan books are the best parts for two reasons: first, they have the strongest sense of inter-book continuity thanks to the recurring protagonists and, second, they don’t employ Romance tropes like the rest of the series does to varying degrees.  I will admit the second point is a very subjective point, since I don’t much like Romance stories in general.

Next week, I may have to review The Wizard of London just to round out the Sarah and Nan trifecta.

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