A Study in Honor: Strong character- and world-building, but a weak mystery

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A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell speculative fiction book reviewsA Study in Honor by Claire O’DellA Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell

I enjoyed quite a lot about A Study in Honor (2018), the first novel in Claire O’Dell’s near-future mystery series THE JANET WATSON CHRONICLES. Her twists on the Holmes-and-Watson dynamic are fresh and interesting, the characters themselves are compelling and beautifully real, and her portrayal of an America gripped by conflicts and changes brought on by unrest at home is all-too-relevant. As a mystery novel, however, it falls a little short, with most of O’Dell’s attention going toward establishing who the primary characters are and bringing them together despite their personality conflicts, and I discovered (much to my dismay) that much of the mystery itself is laid bare on the back cover of the novel.

The conceit at the core of A Study in Honor is quite heavily influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel A Study in Scarlet, in which Anglo-Afghan War veteran Dr. John Watson is introduced by an old friend to Sherlock Holmes, an eccentric and highly intelligent person in need of a flatmate. Instead of two white English chaps running about London solving mysteries together, we are introduced to Dr. Janet Watson, a queer black veteran of the New Civil War who, like John Watson, suffered a serious and career-ending injury to her left arm, and who must return to Washington D.C. in search of work and lodgings. While she’s able to get basic work at the VA office —nothing as fulfilling or lucrative as her pre-war practice — her monthly hostel rent is exorbitant, along with her bills for food and daily necessities.

Luckily, Watson’s old assistant, Corporal Jacob Bell, just happens to know a black woman in need of a flatmate. Bell warns Watson, however, that Sara Holmes can be difficult to deal with in her best moods. “She’s particular,” he says repeatedly. But the apartment itself is far nicer than Watson can afford by herself, her new flatmate presents an exciting and intriguing challenge the likes of which Watson hasn’t encountered in a long while, and having some stability in her life is something she desperately craves. Sara Holmes is urbane, hyper-intelligent while lacking in key social graces, and possesses certain items which seem impossibly advanced even considering the technological leaps forward into the middle of the twenty-first century. As they become acquainted, Dr. Watson discovers how very little she knows about Ms. Holmes, and truly, how little she knows about the country she calls home.

Claire O’Dell

Soon, Dr. Watson learns that there’s far more going on, both at the VA and in the nation’s capital, than she could possibly have imagined, and when soldiers she’s treated or served alongside start dying of mysterious causes, it’s impossible for her to ignore her Hippocratic Oath and sweep her suspicions under a mental rug. Are the deaths connected? What significance do they hold to the New Civil War raging across America’s heartland? How far will the powers that be go to keep her inquiries under wraps? And just who is Sara Holmes, really?

O’Dell fills A Study in Honor with details that enrich and inform the reader’s experience. Watson’s PTSD is carefully, credibly portrayed, along with her continued efforts to stitch the pieces of her life back together. Her struggles with her prosthetic arm and daily anxiety are spot-on, along with her references to “when I had the spoons to notice” political turmoil — spoonies who read that line will know exactly what Watson means, and how difficult it can be to get through a single day. Watson encounters a number of diverse characters from a wide array of backgrounds, demonstrating the success of continuing policies of inclusion and integration despite “those dark days in the late 2010s when white supremacists had taken over our country and the world.” This isn’t to say that America has become a Utopia; racism, classism, and sexism are still present and accounted for, and people like Watson and Holmes struggle against them every day. O’Dell’s vision of a future America in the midst of civil war is well-thought-out and multi-layered, and I appreciated the level of work she put into her creation.

On the other hand, the necessity of setting up who these people are and the world they live in for a series-opening novel leaves little space for the mystery that is supposed to underpin the entire work. Even though elements of the mystery at hand are extant throughout A Study in Honor, they’re much weaker than Watson’s recovery process and her interactions with Holmes, and the ultimate resolution feels rushed and hollow. Not knowing what O’Dell has in mind for the series as a whole, it’s certainly possible that key figures will return in subsequent instalments and that their nefarious plans here will provide ripples and echoes later on, but only being able to judge the work before me means that I have to report dissatisfaction with the way in which these narrative threads are wrapped up here.

But all in all, A Study in Honor was an entertaining read, and I appreciated the groundwork O’Dell laid with regard to who Dr. Janet Watson is at her core and the difficult road to recovery she must travel. I’m intrigued by the ways in which O’Dell adapted Doyle’s classic characters and themes into a thoroughly modern narrative, and I’m looking forward to the next JANET WATSON CHRONICLES instalment, The Hound of Justice, currently slated for a 2019 release. (And for readers who enjoy the idea of reworking A Study in Scarlet and need something to tide them over until then, I highly recommend Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald, which is delightfully creepy and a lovely homage to the source material.)

Published in July 2018. A selection in Parade’s roundup of “25 Hottest Books of Summer 2018.” A Paste Magazine’s Most Anticipated 25 books of 2018 pick. A Medium’s Books pick for We Can’t Wait to Read in 2018 list. Set in a near future Washington, D.C., a clever, incisive, and fresh feminist twist on a classic literary icon — Sherlock Holmes — in which Dr. Janet Watson and covert agent Sara Holmes will use espionage, advanced technology, and the power of deduction to unmask a murderer targeting Civil War veterans. Dr. Janet Watson knows firsthand the horrifying cost of a divided nation. While treating broken soldiers on the battlefields of the New Civil War, a sniper’s bullet shattered her arm and ended her career. Honorably discharged and struggling with the semi-functional mechanical arm that replaced the limb she lost, she returns to the nation’s capital, a bleak, edgy city in the throes of a fraught presidential election. Homeless and jobless, Watson is uncertain of the future when she meets another black and queer woman, Sara Holmes, a mysterious yet playfully challenging covert agent who offers the doctor a place to stay. Watson’s readjustment to civilian life is complicated by the infuriating antics of her strange new roommate. But the tensions between them dissolve when Watson discovers that soldiers from the New Civil War have begun dying one by one—and that the deaths may be the tip of something far more dangerous, involving the pharmaceutical industry and even the looming election. Joining forces, Watson and Holmes embark on a thrilling investigation to solve the mystery—and secure justice for these fallen soldiers.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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2 comments

  1. “… and I discovered (much to my dismay) that much of the mystery itself is laid bare on the back cover of the novel.”

    Oh, no! This is bad, very bad, for a mystery!

    Fortunately, it sounds like there’s enough else going on the carry the story.

    • It would be a bummer for any book, but it’s very bad for a mystery, indeed! But there is enough going on in the rest of the book that I did enjoy this one, thankfully.

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