Garment of Shadows, Laurie R. King
After reading Pirate King back in January, which reminded me why I love Laurie King's books, I have been eagerly awaiting Garment of Shadows, published earlier this month. There is nothing quite like the anticipation of a new book by a favorite author, especially in a series whose characters feel like old friends met again. This is the twelfth in King's series featuring Mary Russell and her partner & husband Sherlock Holmes. Set in Morocco and following quickly on the events of the previous book, it opens with a brief preface, in which we learn that Holmes has returned from some adventure of his own, expecting to meet Russell, who had remained on location with the Fflytte film crew (after their adventures in Pirate King). Instead he learns that she has not been seen since she walked out into the desert one night in the company of a young boy, leaving behind a note saying only that she was going to the city of Fez.
The first chapter opens in what seems to be Russell's familiar voice:
I was in bed. A bed, at any rate. I had been flattened by a steam-roller, trampled under a stampede of bison. Beaten by a determined thug. I ached, head to toe, fingers and skin. Mostly head. My skull throbbed, one hot pulse for every beat of my heart.
I was immediately caught, drawn in, wondering where she is, what happened to her on the road to Fez. But those aren't even the most urgent questions: why is there blood on her hands, under her fingernails? And even more shocking, the question she asks herself: "Who the hell was I?" Before she can even start to answer these questions, she sees two French soldiers coming toward the building, and in a panic, she flees to the roof and over it, out into what proves to be a honeycombed old city in North Africa. For the first few chapters we follow Russell, as she explores the different quarters of the city, gradually regaining her strength, haunted by flashes of memory, trying to figure out who and where she is. I enjoyed watching her cope. She is such a resourceful young woman, with some unusual skills, like the picking of locks and an idiomatic command of Arabic. Using those skills, she manages to find food and shelter, and she also collects information about the fraught political situation, with Morocco divided between Spanish and French influence, though she doesn't understand all that she hears.
The story then turns back to Holmes' adventures. These books are ostensibly Russell's memoirs, which Laurie King is editing, and hers is the narrative voice. Russell and Holmes often separate during an investigation, to pursue different lines of inquiry, but the story always stays with Russell. Only once before, in Locked Rooms, did it shift to Holmes (and that story played an important part in another book, The Art of Detection, one of the books in King's modern series featuring Kate Martinelli). Other authors with first-person narrators, including Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody and Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott, have also found a way to bring in third-person narration, to widen the story beyond one character's experiences or point or view.
Here, the sections that follow Holmes provide much of the context for the story. Holmes too is in Fez, part of French Morocco, whose Resident General, Maréchal Lyautey, is a distant cousin. Morocco is in turmoil, with a rebellion against the Spanish control of the north, with its rich iron mines. There are rumors that Germany is funding the rebels, known as "Rifi" from the Rif mountains that divide the country. Just six years after the Great War ended, neither France nor England wants a German foothold in Tangier, just across the Straits from Gibraltar and Europe. Holmes is planning to travel south, away from the troubled areas of the rebellion. But when he returns, to find Russell gone, he meets instead an old comrade, Ali Hazr, whose connection with the Rifi will draw both Holmes and Russell into the country's troubles and into danger. Like an earlier book, The Game, which took them to India, this is a story of statecraft and espionage, of the "Great Game" of empire that Holmes' older brother Mycroft plays from his shadowy office in Whitehall.
There is so much to enjoy with this book. Laurie King marvelously evokes the settings, particularly Fez, as we wander its streets with Russell and Holmes. She weaves the history of Morocco into the story, and in an end note explains the fate of the Rif rebellion. Her shift in narrators gives us both the familiar pleasure of Russell's company, but also the unusual experience of Holmes' point of view. Generally we see him only through Russell's eyes, and I enjoyed the change of perspective, including seeing Russell through his eyes (and his heart) for a change. There also is the pleasure of meeting old friends, like Ali and his brother Mahmoud, and new ones like the Maréchal. Lyautey is an historic and heroic figure, respecting Islam and the Moroccan people, trying to guide his Protectorate into a modern nation. Laurie King, dedicating this book "to those who reach across boundaries with a hand of welcome," quotes Lyautey: "Let us learn their ways, just as they are learning ours."
This is an excellent addition to a great series, built on well-crafted plots, intriguing settings, and most of all on its endearing characters. I found Mary Russell's voice irresistible from the first page of The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and greedy reader that I am, I'm glad to see from "About the Author" that Laurie King "is at work on her next novel, City of Dark."