Jan 5, 2010

The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King

The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice opens when a strong-minded, intelligent, sarcastic fifteen-year-old orphan by the name of Mary Russell runs into an irritating man who is watching the bees in the Sussex Downs. The man’s name, we soon find out, is Sherlock Holmes. What begins as a clash very soon turns into an intense friendship: Holmes invites Mary Russell back to his house for tea and then takes her under his wing, training her in the art of detection. Set during the years of WWI, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice follows Mary Russell as she goes to university at Oxford (where, as a woman, she was of course not allowed to actually graduate) and joins the renowned detective in what turns out to be their first case—one that is anything but fun and games.

Before I start gushing, let me say that another thing I really liked was the way the series is framed. Mary Russell’s stories are presented as memoirs (just like the original Holmes stories, and also like classics such as The Moonstone), and the book opens with an introduction in which a mystery writer tells us about how she mysterious received the manuscript of the story that follows in the mail…I thought this was great fun, and very appropriate for the time period in which the story is set, and to whose literature it pays homage.

The plot of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice starts off slowly, which is to say: quite a bit of attention is at first given to Mary’s teens years, and there are a few seemingly unrelated cases before we get to the main mystery. But this does not at all mean that the book itself is slow. Every single page was a joy to read. As you’ve probably noticed by now, I'm a character-oriented reader. love nothing more than finding characters with whom I connected and that leave me longing to spend more time with them, and that’s exactly what happened here. I adored Mary Russell, I loved King’s version of Holmes, and I very much want to spend endless amounts of time in their company. Fortunately, this is a series (and a long one at that), which means I can. Hooray!

But what, you wonder, did I exactly love so much? Well, like I told you before, Mary is smart, sarcastic, strong-willed, and a feminist! She and Holmes constantly have great exchanges—the dialogue is brilliantly written—and work very well together. Despite the age difference and the difference in social stance that their genders imply in the society in which they live, theirs is a partnership in the true sense of the word.

In the book’s opening scene, Holmes takes Mary for a boy, and is quite taken aback when he realises that she is, in fact, a girl. He spends most of the book trying to ignore this fact, however, and always addresses her as Russell. I would have found this problematic if it went unremarked upon, but Mary Russell most certainly does notice it and comment on it. Holmes’ form of address is deliberate, and women’s place in society at this time, as well as the patronising attitudes most men adopt towards them, are central to the book’s plot. I wish I could develop this point further, but I can’t without spoilers.

Oh, there was just so much to love here. The setting, the early twentieth century, is one of my favourites; the main mystery itself was exciting; the atmosphere was perfect; the character development likewise. And then there were these great moments that made me teary-eyed, like when Mary tells Jessica she’ll be her big sister, or when she finally tells Holmes the story of how she became an orphan… I live for character moments of this kind. Everyone who told me I’d love this series was absolutely right, and I have already used one of my Christmas gift certificates to order A Monstrous Regiment of Women.

Bits I liked:
The First World War has deteriorated into a handful of quaint songs and sepia images, occasionally powerful but immeasurably distant; there is death in that war, but no blood. The twenties have become a caricature, the clothing we wore is now in museums, and those of us who remember the beginnings of this godforsaken century are beginning to falter. With us will go our memories.

And yet, beneath it all, underneath the games and the challenges, in the very air we all breathed in those days, lay death, death and horror and the growing awareness that life would never be the same, for anyone. While I grew and flexed the muscles of my mind, the bodies of strong young men were being poured ruthlessly into the 500-mile gutter that was the Western Front, an entire generation of men subjected to the grinding, body-rotting, mind-shattering impossibility of battle in thigh-deep mud and drifts of searing gas, under machine-gun fire and through tangles of wire.

‘I exercised my right to protect the partnership by putting a halt to your stupidity. Yes, stupidity. You believe yourself to be without the limitations of mere mortals, I know, but the mind, even your mind, my dear Holmes, is subject to the body’s weakness. No food or drink and filth on an open wound puts the partnership—puts me!—at an unnecessary risk. And that is something I won’t have.
They read it too:
Jenny’s Books
Presenting Lenore
Age 30+: A Lifetime of Books
A Striped Armchair
Rebecca Reads
One Swede Reads
Susan Hated Literature

(Did I miss yours?)

54 comments:

  1. Yay!!!!!! This series is so close to my heart, I was almost afraid to read your review in case you didn't love it too. lol

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, you have got my attention! It isn't every day you come across something with such brilliant characters. I find this with Waters too. I've written it down. Thanks for discovering it for me!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I can definitely sense your excitement over this book through this post, Nymeth! Will definitely add this on to my wishlist! ;)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Soounds like a great read! I've added to my TBR list. Great review.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I am glad you enjoyed this book!! The series is excellent and each book is very individual and could stand alone (with the exception of the story line of Mary Russell and Holmes as a "couple")
    I did not begin at the beginning.. my first read of Mary Russell was The Moor, and like you, knew I'd read more instantly!

    by the way... in April a new Mary Russell book will be released!

    ReplyDelete
  6. When Rich and I went to the bookstore the other day, I had ever intention of buying this book. I've actually long wanted to get it as Eva loves this series so much. But when I gleaned how much you loved it, too, well, I just couldn't resist any longer. And wouldn't you know it, it was out of stock. :( They had most (if not all) of the rest of the series, but were out of this one. Oh well...there's always more bookstore trips to look forward to, huh?

    ReplyDelete
  7. It sounds like a fabulous read. I would love to read this, especially as the first setting is in the Sussex Downs which are right by me. They are something to see.

    I just noticed that you are reading Dear Daddy Longs Legs - I hope you love it as much as I do.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm almost embarrassed to say that I've owned this one since it came out. Have I read it yet? No. What's wrong with me?

    ReplyDelete
  9. I was intrigued by this series last year during the mystery read-athon. I have this sitting on my bookshelf and plan to read it when I do my Sherlock Holmes unit with my 7th graders.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I always meant to read this series, but it is a long one and somehow I just placed it on the back burner as a result -- terrifc review!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I've been hearing such good things about this series for years. I have this book on my shelf though and plan on reading it this year. Thanks for the review!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I read this book many years ago and really, really enjoyed it. Meant to continue the series. Reread it again a couple of years ago with a book group. Again meant to continue with the series. Maybe this year is the year. Like you, I loved Mary's voice. It's a wonderful series. You wrote a good review.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I had heard of this, but never read it, probably in part because it just sounded like it threw so many Victorian tropes together (Sherlock Holmes, orphan girls, memoir form, etc), and because I don't read a lot of mysteries. But it sounds like she pulled it off well, I'll have to try it :).

    ReplyDelete
  14. The only King book I've read was "Folly" nd that was a while ago. I am adding this series to my TBR list. Thanks for a wonderful review.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I had no idea this book involved Sherlock Holmes. I just read Eye of the Crow (his first case, at age 13) which got me interested in him.

    I love that quote about the first world war! It is so true, isn't it? And on could say even worse about the romanticization of the Civil War.

    ReplyDelete
  16. YAY! I'm SO glad you loved this book - it is fantastic, isn't it?! I've been trying to convince my blog's readers to try it out but now that the "famous" Nymeth has endorsed it, it should be an easy sell. ~LOL~

    By the way, did you see the post at Laurie R. King's blog today? She is writing a bit about each book in the series and today she wrote about this book. I loved her insights and am really looking forward to the newest book which comes out in March. (http://www.laurierking.com/the-beekeeper%E2%80%99s-apprentice-with-some-notes-upon-the-segregation-of-the-queen.html)

    ReplyDelete
  17. I think I'd heard of this before but didn't know anything about it. Sherlock Holmes? Strange...

    ReplyDelete
  18. I read this over the summer and I loved it. I look forward to reading the other books in the series. What a difference, too, between this and our "new" Holmes in the movie theaters! I enjoyed the movie, but I like King's version better. I also thought the dialogue and interplay between Mary and Holmes was wonderful and smart.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I've seen this book raved about on other blogs (perhaps first at A Striped Armchair) and have picked up a copy to read but haven't gotten around to it... part of me feels that I must finish reading all of Sherlock Holmes first, which I realize is probably unnecessary but now that I have it in mind, there you have it. I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed this one as well... maybe I'll give up this stubbornness about reading all of the original Holmes works first and eventually get around to reading it!

    ReplyDelete
  20. Ooh, I've been avoiding this one for many of the reasons Jason mentions above. SO glad it works! Especially after my Victorian women rant. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  21. I knew you would love this one - and the rest of the books are just as delightful. What a great way to start the reading year! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  22. I've never read any of Mary Russell's books, but keep reading rave reviews. You've made this one sound so good.

    ReplyDelete
  23. This series is one of my very favorite mystery series - love, love, love them!

    ReplyDelete
  24. This is one of my favorite books and I've re-read it multiple times, so it's wonderful to read someone's fresh exhilaration after reading it for the first time.

    I like Monstrous Regiment quite a bit, and #5 O Jerusalem, but the first book is definitely the best of the series.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I'm glad you mention the framing, because that's one of the things I love most about the series, too. I reviewed the latest Mary Russell book soon after it came out (http://necromancyneverpays.blogspot.com/2009/08/language-of-bees.html) and thought it was just as good as the first--so read all of them!

    ReplyDelete
  26. Oh Nymeth, you have so much enjoyment ahead of you!

    ReplyDelete
  27. I downloaded this one when the publisher was giving it away (last year I think) and I really need to find my copy now!

    ReplyDelete
  28. I absolutely loved this book. I'm going to delve more into this series this year!! Glad you enjoyed it too!

    ReplyDelete
  29. I've heard about this everywhere without actually knowing what it was about. I am surprised by the subject, but it is better than I imagined! I am happy to hear that it was written as many classics were-- with someone finding a manuscript or charged with writing an account of their adventures. That's probably one of my favorite aspects about certain classics. Thanks for the review!

    ReplyDelete
  30. I've this ordered at work, hopefully it'll come in soon. I read the most recent in the series a while back, usually I never read out of sequence but I figured what the hell, and while I did enjoy it I think I may get a lot more out of these books by starting at the beginning ;)

    ReplyDelete
  31. Well this sounds like a delightful read indeed! Although a different approach, I like the similarities that were observed between the original stories and this addition to that mass. I may have to seek this one out in the near future. Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  32. I think I have to read this series... I keep hearing good things and my library has it, so I will give it a try!

    ReplyDelete
  33. Eva: lol, fear not - for once we agree :P

    Sandy: Waters IS great at characterization. And plot. And beautiful prose. And EVERYTHING. Okay, so I never said I was anything other than a complete fangirl :P

    Melody: Enjoy :D

    Jennifer, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Deslily: Though I noticed that the dynamics between them were changing towards the end of the book, it's still SO weird to think of them as a couple! I guess it'll feel more natural when I get there, but still...

    Debi: Why does that ALWAYS happen?? Bookstores seem to enjoy carrying every book in a series but the first.

    Vivienne: That area sounds so lovely! Also, I finished Daddy-Long-Legs today and absolutely ADORED it <3

    Beth: lol...I have asked myself the same about several books :P

    Molly: Oh, it should be awesome to read them side by side!

    Diane: Thank you!

    Tricia, you're welcome - enjoy it!

    Kay: That happens to me with so many series...I hope it doesn't with this one!

    Jason: I'm a complete mystery newbie, but the thing is, the mystery is just a small part of it! And I can see how it'd sound like it'd be clichéd, but it isn't!

    Gavin, I think you'll enjoy it!

    Jill: It is! It's so easy to forgot how horrible wars actually are.

    Heather: lol, I am not famous! But I hope more people pick this up. Thank you for letting me about her blog!

    Amanda: It's not as strange as it sounds :P

    Priscilla: Wasn't it smart? I haven't seen the new movie yet, but it does sound like a very different Holmes...

    ReplyDelete
  34. Steph: You know, I had the same concern, but when I asked for mystery recommendations a while ago, several bloggers assured me I didn't know to be very familiar with Holmes to enjoy this (I've read 3 of the novels, but not the short stories yet), so I decided to risk it. I think they were right! All the knowledge of Holmes that is required is the kind that we get from pop culture, I think.

    Aarti: Now that I've read your rant PROPERLY (I'm so sorry!) and know we totally agree, I'll try to set your mind at ease: it does work, for several reasons. We see where Mary's mindset comes from - her unusual education, the fact that she's American - and it's convincing. Plus, this is set at a time of quick social change, and the book definitely doesn't ignore the wider social and cultural context. So yeah...fear not!

    Darla D: Or to finish it :P This was 2009 still.

    Kathy, they are awesome!

    Carrie: Now I see why!

    Christy: I am so looking forward to Monstrous Regiment :)

    Jeanne: The framing is such fun! I can't wait to see where she'll take it.

    brideofthebookgod: :D

    Darren, that was actually why I read it. Forgot my book at home one day, and when lunch break came I found the e-book on my pen drive :P

    Staci: So am I! May we both have fun :D

    She, I hope you enjoy it! I love that about these classics too.

    Fence: Yes, that tends to happen. Enjoy it!

    GMR: Yeah, I loved that it's still recognizably Holmes, and yet different..

    Kailana: I can't wait to hear what you think!

    ReplyDelete
  35. I'm so glad you liked this! The rest of the series is even better. Between this and Sayers, you're now a convert to my two favorite mystery writers. Hooray!

    ReplyDelete
  36. I may have mentioned this here before, but my wife's name, before I captured her and renamed her (smiles) was Mary Russell. After reading about these books on blogs for the past few years I finally got her to give them a try and she is hooked! She's been getting them on audio and listening to them on the way too and from work. I think she enjoys the extra fun of hearing her name read aloud.

    ReplyDelete
  37. Well, you saw my review, so you know I didn't love it, but I did enjoy it! I'm not dying to read the next books, though. I'm just not a mystery person.

    ReplyDelete
  38. I'm hooked just by reading your first paragraph of the review. It'll be on my radar!

    ReplyDelete
  39. Gah, I can't wait to read this one!! I've had it on my wishlist ever since Eva suggested it to me like 2 years ago, then Pat told me that I absolutely had to read these and now you!! They sound so good!!

    ReplyDelete
  40. Oh...this sounds so good!! Having just seen the Sherlock Holmes movie, I'll be picturing a rather buff-looking Robert Downey, Jr. as I read it too. (and that is quite a perk!!)

    Definitely going on my list!

    ReplyDelete
  41. I just got this via bookmooch, think I'll be off to start it right now! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  42. I think I mentioned to you that I bought this for my boyfriend for Christmas because he's just finishing reading all of Sherlock Holmes; it was a complete selfless purchase...

    ReplyDelete
  43. I bought this book last year after reading rave reviews but I haven't gotten to it yet. So I am very glad to hear that you loved it! I am also hoping to fall in love with it and the series. Awesome review, I will have to try to get to it very shortly!

    ReplyDelete
  44. So glad to read of another fan! I have read and re-read these with delight each time. Some Holmes purists object of course, but ... who cares? Can't wait for the next installment this spring.

    ReplyDelete
  45. You can follow Mary Russell on twitter at: www.twitter.com/mary_russell

    ReplyDelete
  46. Glad to hear you enjoyed this! My prof for classic english lit last semester is a Holmes expert and she said this series is excellent, it was funny to see a teacher gushing to the point of blabbering :)

    ReplyDelete
  47. Oh, how I love this entire series! For me, each book was better than the last, but only because they built so nicely on each other. So glad you loved it!

    ReplyDelete
  48. Teresa: I have book bloggers to thank for having discovered them - thank you :D

    Carl: I didn't know your Mary was also a Mary Russell! That's so awesome :D

    Rebecca: I understand! I've noticed that with mystery books (just like with most genres), the mystery itself is only a small part of what keeps me interested. Above all I need good characters.

    Alice, I think you'd enjoy it :D

    Chris: Readitreaditreaditreaditreadit :P

    Stephanie: lol :P

    Joanna: yay! Enjoy :)

    Claire: lol! I'm sure it was ;)

    Zibille: I hope you fall in love with it too!

    Frances: Yes, who cares? These are just such fun.

    Anonymous: I am! :D

    Joanne: Your prof sounds awesome :D I love it when teachers are truly enthusiastic about books like that.

    Chelle: yay! It makes me happy to hear that :)

    ReplyDelete
  49. I really enjoyed this book a *lot* and I keep meaning to go back to it, except my copy has been making the family rounds and I may not see it for a long time... Interestingly, one of the things I liked least was the framing. I read it as a cop-out on King's part (I have a lot of respect for her, mind you) -- almost like "if you don't like this, it's not my fault! It's Mary Russell's!" which I know wasn't the intention. I've noticed that whenever any author frames something they wrote as not their words it bugs the heck out of me. I may have to investigate the why of that further at some point. As you and many other commenters seem to prove, I think I might be in the minority on this.

    Fabulous book, and I'm glad you enjoyed! I love the way Russell and Holmes meet, with Russell's nose in a book...

    ReplyDelete
  50. This sounds very good, another one to add to the list! Thanks for the great review Nymeth.

    ReplyDelete
  51. This sounds very good, another one to add to the list! Thanks for the great review Nymeth.

    ReplyDelete
  52. This one got me hooked on the series. I bought the second one and need to find time to fit it in!

    ReplyDelete
  53. Sounds like one that could count toward the Women Unbound reading challenge. You wrote: "Set during the years of WWI, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice follows Mary Russell as she goes to university at Oxford (where, as a woman, she was of course not allowed to actually graduate)..."

    ReplyDelete
  54. I MUST read this. Why haven't I done so already? Why, why, why???

    ReplyDelete

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.