Thanks to Jenny’s recommendation, I’ve been following Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series since before the release of the 4th book. I find that it’s rare for an author to keep a series consistent for multiple books, so with the release of each new addition to the series, I’ve worried that this will be the one where the cracks begin to show, where we’ll see King pandering to her fans by repeating familiar beloved tropes or trying to freshen things up by introducing some obnoxious new element. But with every book, King has managed to both keep things fresh and please long-time fans by having her characters grow and learn while always retaining the core qualities that make them so appealing. I’ve enjoyed some books more than others, but with the tenth book now just published, the series as a whole shows no signs of falling off.
The Language of Bees, the ninth Russell mystery, was released last year, and I picked up a copy almost immediately but kept putting off reading it. When I learned that it ends with a cliff-hanger and that the next book, The God of the Hive, would be published this spring, I decided to wait until I could read them both at once, which is exactly what I did this week. Jenny read and reviewed The Language of Bees last year, so go check out her review for a summary of the plot.
I must confess I was worried about the introduction of the new character Damian Adler and his prior connection to Holmes. It’s the kind of development that could easily feel like a stunt, introducing a complication just for the sake of creating tension between Russell and Holmes. Damian’s presence does introduce tension between our beloved detectives, but both Russell and Holmes handle it in ways that feel honest and mature. And Damian himself is an intriguing character. I changed my mind about him and his motivations multiple times as I read because King plants lots of plausible red herrings about Damian’s actions. I particularly loved the descriptions of Damian’s surrealist art and his wife’s religious activities. And then there’s the nail-biter of an ending at the Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle in the Orkney Islands.
The thrilling ending of The Language of Bees leads immediately into The God of the Hive, which Jenny reviewed earlier this month. In The God of the Hive, the mystery introduced in The Language of Bees gets deeper and more complex. What appeared to be merely the conspiracy of a crackpot cult is revealed to have ties to more Earthbound powers, and the people in those seats of power have plans that put long-time favorite characters in jeopardy. And by the end of the book, new tensions have arisen that cause Russell to question her own assumptions about the people she loves. It’s intense and exciting, both on a plot level and a character development level.
In God of the Hive, King again introduced a new character who worried me. If you’re familiar with the concept of “jumping the shark,” you may know that one sign that a television show is ready is jump the shark is the introduction of a cute and precocious kid. So when I see a precocious kid in a long-running series of any kind, I worry. Estelle, the daughter of Damian Adler, could have easily become such a kid, but King seamlessly integrates her into Russell and Holmes’s world without turning either of these sometimes prickly characters into something they’ve never been. So I found that I had no need to worry.
The other new character, Robert Goodman, is fascinating enough to warrant a book of his own. In this one character, King is able to explore English myth, mental illness, the ravages of war, the solace of solitude, and the need for connection. His presence adds an element of unpredictability and chaos that in some mysterious way feels comforting. It’s almost impossible to explain, but everything he does feels rooted in something deep and abiding, something that makes no sense to the modern mind but that has truth in it all the same.
So if you’re already a Mary Russell fan, rest assured that these two books are strong additions to the series. And if you haven’t given Russell a try, what are you waiting for? These books are a delight, even if, like me, you’re not a particular fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I don’t think it’s entirely necessary to read the books in order, although it’s helpful from a character development angle. However, the characters and situations don’t change so much that you need the previous books to understand the later ones. These two almost certainly should be read in order, because the two books together cover a single plot, but in general King provides enough information in each book to make up for any gaps in readers’ knowledge that would come from missing earlier books.
See another review of The God of the Hive at Nonsuch Book.