Book Review: A Monstrous Regiment of Women

So, uh, whoops.  I lied.  In a move that is awfully uncharacteristic of me, I am disobeying my own rule for this month, and doing three book reviews, instead of two.  Okay, I kind of had a feeling this would happen.  Because, ya know, the book was just too good.

Title: A Monstrous Regiment of Women

Author: Laurie R. King

Publisher/Price: Picador/$11.34 here

Type: Fiction

Genre: Mystery

Number of pages: 304

Number in series: 2

My rating: 5 1/2 out of 5 stars (favorite!)

Overview: Mary Russell has graduated from her position as Sherlock Holmes's apprentice: she is now an Oxford graduate with a degree in theology.  She is coming of age and is hit with the realization of her woman-ness vs. Holmes's masculinity.  Both of them seem to realize that their relationship/partnership has changed, perhaps romantically, but do not mention it to each other.  Russell meets up with an old friend, who introduces her to a mysterious woman, Margery Childe, a charismatic, early-feminist mystic, who conducts a variety of ministries for the underprivileged women of London and who holds talks geared toward women.  Her group of followers are tight-knit, and when Russell is inexplicably drawn in, she and Margery strike up a friendship.  When members of Margery's circle begin to be targeted: a couple are killed, and a few meet with accident, Russell doesn't think it's coincidence.  She finds that the women who met with misfortune had recently changed their wills, and she looks deeper into Margery Childe's organization.  She is kidnapped, then injected with heroin for 9 days, after which she is rescued by Holmes, who helps her overcome her dependence on the drug.  They eventually discover that Margery's husband had been targeting the women, holding out for a share of the money they were planning to leave to his wife's work.  The ensuing chase leaves Margery wounded, her husband dead, and Holmes narrowly escapes.  At the end of the novel, Sherlock expresses his love for Russell, and they marry.

My thoughts:  Well, judging from that ridiculously long/detailed overview, this may get kinda long.  My thoughts are multitudinous and I have a feeling they will come tumbling out all over the place, because I just loved this book. so. much.

Last week, I reviewed Garment of Shadows by Laurie King, and I was disappointed, to say the least.  (ICYMI, you can read it here)  That book was the 12th in the series about Mary Russell, wife of Sherlock Holmes and sidekick/ex-apprentice.  After reading it, I decided that in order for me to truly enjoy the series, I was going to have to fall in love with the main character, Mary Russell.  There wasn't enough Sherlock to keep me reading based on my love for him alone.  But I won't go into detail; you can read all about it in that review.  Well, I am happy (read: dancing with ecstasy) to say that I have fallen head over heels for Mary Russell thanks to this book.  It was absolutely brilliant (I'll be using that word a lot in this review).  I've attempted to organize my thoughts somewhat, and I want to talk about the characters first.

Obviously, the main character is Mary Russell, and after Garment of Shadows, I came to terms with the fact that this series is not about Sherlock Holmes, it is about Russell.  She is the type of girl I feel like I would want to be best friends with.  She essentially lives in Oxford and is devoted to her studies.  She is absolutely confident, has a good head on her shoulders, is a bit of a daredevil, and is always up for anything.  Not to say she is fearless, but she is completely sure of herself, which is really refreshing for a heroine in a mystery series.  Mary does things all the way and she doesn't give a second thought to what people think of her.  She is totally unintimidated by Sherlock, doesn't put up with his sometimes less-than-pleasant personality, and their banter is one of my favorite parts about the book.  She has a quick whit, and it is also refreshing for him to be with someone who is his equal in snark.  I also want to talk about Sherlock's character for a second.  While he is not quite the Sherlock I am familiar with: he is older, wiser, more mature, and a lot less scatterbrained/manic, a great deal of his quirks still pop up here and there.  For one, his crazy disguises make numerous appearances, as do his infamous housekeeping abilities, though sometimes his thoughtfulness and housekeeping surprise Mary, as well as the reader.  After the last book I read by King, I am surprised to say that I adore this version of Sherlock Holmes.  Like, can I be Mary Russell?  Please?

Easily the best part of the book for me was the relationship between Russell and Holmes.  The dynamic between them is just fantastic.  In this book, Mary is coming of age: she turns 21 and is on the brink of receiving an inheritance, and all of the sudden, she realizes that Holmes is a man, and she is a woman, and that revelation so overwhelms her whenever she is around him, that she cuts back the time she spends with him.  The book made it unclear whether there was any sort of romantic feelings surrounding this situation for Russell, but I'd like to think so.  I think up to that point, Mary had viewed Holmes solely as a mentor and instructor, and now that that element is gone, I think she realizes there could be a future between them beyond that of a teacher and student.  I found this dynamic absolutely compelling and enjoyable.  It introduces a sort of love/hate behavior on Russell's part, as she wrestles with what to do with her unfamiliar feelings toward Holmes.  The romance in this book is the subtle, veiled, hidden sort of romance I love.

Another thing I noticed, and which surprised me, was the fact that I liked the way Mary seemed so independent of Holmes.  At times, they were working on individual cases, then pursuing a single one in their own ways, independent and separate from the other.  I'm surprised to admit that I really enjoyed Russell's independence of Holmes, that she went wherever she pleased, without thinking about where he was, or having to send him a telegram whenever she changed her plans, etc.  Obviously, that changed when they married, though their marriage was more of a partnership, which was due in part to their age discrepancy, her independence, and the fact that he is Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes will be Sherlock Holmes.  And really, I can't imagine him in any other kind of marriage.  But, I'm getting ahead of myself – that's for another review.   Basically, Russell's independence works for me.

The only thing I wasn't totally hyped about in this book where the subplots.  Margery Childe, who runs the The New Temple of God is an early semi-feminist, with ideas about the Bible I don't agree with theologically, and a mystic approach to God.  She is a charismatic speaker who gives talks about mainly female issues.  She isn't the type of feminist who hates men and believes women should rule the world or anything, but there are certain verses in the Bible which she interprets to mean that God is both man and woman, or something like that(?).  And while feminism is not a major plot point, it is a subplot, along with Margery's strange mysticism I found kind of annoying.  Her theology is kind of fuzzy: she is Biblically literate and incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to the Bible, but it is unclear what she believes when it comes to fundamental Christian principles.  So while I didn't hate these subplots, I didn't love them, or think they made for a terribly exciting mystery.  But as I have come to realize, the real gems when it comes to King's writing are the characters and relationships, and for that reason, this is at the top of my book wish list.

To close out this super long review (oops), I saved the best for last, and I want to talk about Holmes's proposal at the end of the book.  Ugh, it was so good.  It was everything a mature Sherlock proposing to a whip-smart, witty young woman should be.  It was something I have been longing to read and didn't even know it.  It wasn't a long, drawn out, Austen-esque proposal – it was short, a little intense, and it was absolutely perfect.  I can't even.  And because I can't even, you need to check the book out from the library or buy it from a bookstore and read pages 327 to 330.  By far my favorite proposal to date.  Sorry 'bout dat, Mr. Darcy.  Sherlock was always gonna win.  And holy cow, this is a long review.

I think this book is going to make it onto my list of favorite fiction books for this year – it was absolutely, without-a-doubt-ed-ly brilliant, and I love it like crazy.  If you're a Sherlock lover or a fan of kick-butt women with a penchant for detecting, you need to read this.  You can thank me later.   xo, Ella

*This was a book I picked up for the Snagged @ The Library Reading Challenge this year.  Find out more about that challenge here.

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