Main image
22nd July
2010
written by Steph

Please do not let the ugly cover put you off... there is a newer, far cuter cover now available!

After finishing the first Mary Russell novel, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, I immediately put a hold on the second book in the series at my local library (though not before heading to the used bookstore to see if I could pick up a copy of my very own… no such luck, though I don’t blame readers for clutching these books closely to their chests and never letting them out of their sight!). I was jonesing pretty badly for Holmes and Russell’s next adventure, so when I finally had the opportunity to lay my own grubby paws on book two in the series, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, careful and measured reading wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. No, I pretty much tore through this book in a single day, and you know what? I don’t regret it one bit! (Also, I’ve now procured the remaining books in the series, so I can read them at my leisure whenever the desire strikes!) In A Monstrous Regiment of Women, Mary is all grown up and on the cusp of finally receiving her rather sizeable family inheritance. Now a woman, no longer a girl, things have become rather strained between herself and Holmes, as neither can deny the sexuality of the other any longer (though certainly they try). Confused and conflicted by this change in their relationship, Mary pulls away from Holmes, throwing herself into her studies as well as a rekindling a relationship with her old school chum, Veronica Beaconsfield, a friendship which opens Mary’s eyes up to an intoxicating new world. Veronica takes Mary along to a meeting of The New Temple of God, led by the charismatic and compelling Margery Childe, a woman who champions women’s issues in all shapes and forms, and who Mary believes may be mystic. As Mary is slowly drawn into Childe’s inner circle, she discovers that something is horribly amiss: Childe’s most wealthy patronesses have the unfortunate habit of dying in rather gruesome ways… conveniently leaving behind the bulk of their fortunes to The New Temple of God. Still needing her space from Holmes, Mary takes on her very first case of her own, determined to discover what shady dealings are underfoot, but little does she realize in so doing, she puts her own life (and fortune) at stake… It would be so easy to simply write “OMG! I LOVED IT!” and leave it at that, but I suspect that would not be satisfying to most of you who have not read this and OMG loved it. So I shall strive to write a little bit more and leave the high pitched squealing out of it. But I promise nothing! So, first off, I really liked this book because as much as it was a mystery, I felt it was more a novel of ideas. Specifically, I thought King uses this novel as a platform for really looking at the relations between men and women. By having the backdrop of the early 1900s, the distinctions between the two sexes are greatly magnified, and The New Temple of God is a great lens to explore the status of women in society. For all the independence she enjoys, Mary still lives in a world where women cannot vote, where their husbands can beat and violate them without fear of legal retribution (sad to say, this latter violation is still true in certain states in the U.S…). I thought it was really very cool how King positions Margery Child & Sherlock Holmes as the competing and conflicting facets of Mary’s personality as she herself struggles with the role she wants for herself. As much as Mary enjoys the freedom achieved by dressing as a boy, she very much still gets a thrill from buying pretty dresses and getting gussied up. She struggles to own her sexuality while seeking the privileges not afforded to women of the day. In some ways, I did not think the mystery portion of the novel was really that strong – it took a while to get going and there were only a few possible suspects in the end – but I felt that hardly mattered because there were so many other wonderful things to occupy a reader in the midst of it all. Also - and I suppose this next portion is a spoiler for those of you who haven’t read the book or heard much about the series, so skip to the next paragraph if you’d like to proceed with your blissful ignorance in tact! – I had no idea how I would feel about the burgeoning romance between Mary and Holmes that I knew was coming from having casually read about the series in the past. If I’m honest, I thought I would be bothered by the age difference between them; I couldn’t wrap my head around how a relationship between the two wouldn’t be somewhat creepy. But then if I’m completely honest, I will admit that I became totally wrapped up in the romantic drama between the two and found myself rooting for them quite vehemently! Although initially the romantic undertones early in the novel felt a little like they were coming from out of the blue, they soon blossomed into a relationship that felt completely organic to the dynamic previously established between the two. So yeah, now I ship Russell/Holmes, and I feel ok about it! All in all, a supremely enjoyable novel that had a little bit of everything I like in my books: ideas, mystery, and romance! At times I was reminded of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, because I think the two cover somewhat similar ground, that is the rights of women and gender equality, as well as the struggles of women to achieve academic success without forsaking it all for love. I definitely like Monstrous Regiment more, because I did find it more accessible, but of course, I did jump into Gaudy Night with no backstory, which I’m sure dampened by experiences as I wasn’t able to root for Harriet and Peter as I was for Mary and Holmes here. That’s not to say Gaudy Night isn’t worth a reader’s time, because I’m sure there is a level of authenticity there that would be hard to otherwise achieve, given that Sayers herself underwent firsthand many of the same struggles as Harriet and Mary. Still, I think for modern readers, Monstrous Regiment paints a pretty accurate portrait of the time in which it is set, and is also really fun to read! I’m trying to pace myself, but I’m sure another Mary Russell binge is in my future! In conclusion: OMG! I LOVED IT! 🙂 Rating: 4 out of 5

14 Comments

  1. 07/22/2010

    Yay! so glad to hear that this series continues to impress! I have heard a lot about the first book, but not about the subsequent books, so I was glad to see this review. I still haven’t started this series, but I am looking forward to it. Especially now that I know it continues to be good. Glad you had such a wonderful experience with it!!

  2. Eva
    07/22/2010

    What a fun post to read Steph! 😀 When I read this one, I had no idea re: any kind of romance, and like you I ended up getting really into it. lol

    That being said, I adored Gaudy Night (which I only read after reading all of the Vane/Wimsey books preceding it, which I’m sure made a huge difference), and I’d have a hard time choosing between Wimsey/Vane and Holmes/Russell if I could only read one of the series from now on!

  3. 07/22/2010

    So happy to hear that you enjoyed this–and especially that the romance worked for you! I keep seeing people express reservations about the romance based only on the first book, and I keep wanting to shout IT WORKS! READ THE NEXT BOOK! Of course, I’ve been reading this series since before the release of the 4th book, so I’m totally used to the idea. I forget now whether it worried me at first.

  4. 07/23/2010

    “OMG! I LOVED IT!” is a perfect way to sum it up 😀 I agree with you that this is mostly a novel of ideas, and I also appreciated that about it. The mystery is weaker than the one in the first book, but there’s so much else to love that who cares? Also, I knew about the romance before I started the series, and I also wondered whether it’d work. Not so much because of the age difference, but because they meet when Mary is so young, and he practically raises her. But yes, in the end it did work, mostly because there’s no doubt at all that they’re equals.

  5. 07/23/2010

    Yay, it’s so fun to see someone completely enraptured by this book. I love this series (need to read the most recent few, actually – I’ve fallen behind!).

  6. i must live in the land of the oblivious because i’ve never heard of this series or this author! i need to get out a bit more.

    as always, your review makes me want to run out and buy this book. i’m headed to a library book sale later today and will keep my eyes peeled.

  7. 07/23/2010

    @ zibilee: From what I’ve read, it sounds like there may be one or two weaker books in the middle of this series, but largely it’s very consistent and strong. Perhaps because King is not pumping out a book every year but is instead giving herself time to develop organic storylines?
     
    @ Eva: I need to go back and start the Harriet & Peter relationship at the beginning. I have a copy of Whose Body, which I will tackle at some point. Hopefully with the appropriate background and development of their relationship, I’ll be better able to appreciate these two characters!
     
    @ Teresa: It really does work, I think for the reason Nymeth mentions below: Mary & Holmes are obviously equals and so how could one hope for a better match than that? I admit I hope that there is more romance in the subsequent novels, because it really did delight me!
     
    @ Nymeth: Yes to everything you say! Because Holmes & Mary meet when she is so long, in the first book it’s not clear how a sexual relationship between them would not be creepy in some way. But by the time romance flourishes, they are both on equal footing with each other, and I think that is critical.
     
    @ Sarah: If not for the book blogging world, I know I would never have discovered this series, and I’m so glad I have! And it’s great to see so many other fans out there!
     
    @ nat: If you’re going to be at the library, remember you can always just borrow the first book in the series as well! 😛

  8. taryn
    07/23/2010

    Arrgh!
    STOP BLOGGING ABOUT BOOKS AND FINISH TELLING US ABOUT PUERTO RICO.
    Thank you,
    taryn

  9. 07/24/2010

    @ taryn: Don’t get your knickers in a knot! Good things come to those who wait!
     
    @ Aarti: I agree! A cracking mystery is always fun, but I always appreciate when authors have the skill to have their books be more than a simple whodunnit.

  10. 07/23/2010

    I have this one on my shelf and am looking forward to getting to it (some day)! I like that you mention it being a novel of ideas, not just a mystery- those are my favorite types of mysteries 🙂

  11. 07/25/2010

    I agree that Gaudy Night never really did it for me. Possibly the genre isn’t my cup of tea, but I do like the sound of this novel. Never read Laurie R King.

  12. 07/27/2010

    Yay! You loved it. These books are so addictive too. And you are in the primo position of being able to just read straight through. I envy you that especially since the last two were so fantastic. Teresa from Shelf Love and I have discussed how uncomfortable we feel picking up each new book in the series thinking that King’s talents will fail her sometime but it certainly has not happened yet. Just looove these!

  13. 07/28/2010

    @ Frances: I don’t think I realized you were a fellow fan, but of course it makes perfect sense! I do revel in the knowledge that I can tear through these books should I so desire (and I do!), but I am trying to pace myself so that I don’t run out of the books and find myself at loose ends… I’ll leave that to the rest of you! 😉

  14. […] Letter of Mary picks up a few months after the events of the second book in the series (which I talked about here). Life has become somewhat dull and uninspiring on the work front for Mary and Holmes, so it […]

Leave a Reply