A Study in Silks is the first book in a trilogy set in a fantastical Victorian London
fueled by steampunk and magic.
Evelina Cooper was born to a gentlewoman who ran off with a lower-class man. Not an auspicious start for a life, especially after Evelina's father died and left her mother to raise Evelina in a circus. However, Evelina's grandmother rescued her from Ploughman's
Circus and brought her to polite society, and she has tried to fit into it ever
since. Unfortunately, that is quite hard: Evelina has an unladylike interest in building clockworks, and she was also born with magic--which is illegal. However, in school Evelina makes friends with Imogen Roth, daughter of Lord Bancroft, and Imogen
invites Evelina to stay at the Bancroft manor.
Now Evelina lives in Hilliard House with Imogen. She is also very much smitten with Imogen's brother, Tobias. Of course, Evelina has to hide her magic and tinkering from the Roths. But then she overhears servants moving illegal automatons and a servant girl is murdered. Evelina is determined to find out what is going on.
In addition to Evelina, Study in Silks has five other point-of-view characters: Imogen, her father, and brother, Jasper Keating, and the Indominatable Niccolo.
Nick--the Indomitable Niccolo--stars in the circus where Evelina grew up. They have know each other for a long time and
share a history of mutual attraction. They belong now to quite different worlds. Worse, Nick was also born with magic, which means that they excite each other's magic when they are near. This could lead to the police finding out that they have magic, so they cannot be together. However, Nick stumbles upon Bancroft's enemy and starts to work for him.
Jasper Keating is one of the rich and powerful steam barons who almost literally own this London.
Since they supply the city with steam, they control who gets to have heat and light. Keating is scheming to get more power and wealth for himself.
Lord Bancroft, Imogen's father, used to be a diplomat in Austria and is now scheming against the steam barons. He also needs money to rise against them and is determined to get it
through his children's marriages and plots. He is a ruthless and cunning man.
Tobias Roth, Imogen's brother, is interested in building clockworks. That is not really a suitable hobby for a nobleman, and of course even less suitable as work. He and his friends have formed the Society for the Proliferation of Impertinent Events
mainly to alleviate their boredom. Tobias is a rake who womanizes and drinks in
excess, but Evelina's independence interests him.
The world-building is intriguing. London has been split among six barons who each control his or her part of the city. The barons are so powerful that they can even shut off steam from Lords who do not do their bidding. They hate and fear magic, which they think can rob them of their power. Everyday life is full of steam-powered objects.
The magic system seems to be centered on nature spirits called devas. Some people can see them and interact with them, but most can't. The devas have their own minds, and they are not nice people. Evelina is able to bind deva spirits into her clockwork creations, which is a rare skill.
The devas are unhappy about being bound to Evelina and essentially forced to work for her.
Evelina is Sherlock Holmes' niece and the great detective makes an appearance in the novel--in fact Jasper Keating hires him to do detective work. While the book does not quite end in a cliffhanger, many things are left unresolved.
Unfortunately, the large cast of characters makes the plot move rather
slowly, and the classic romantic triangle among Evelina, Nick, and Tobias means that all three spend quite a lot of time
indulging in angst. Imogen's point of view is also devoted almost entirely to finding herself a husband,
which means that while the mystery is interesting, it is almost sidelined by romantic subplots.