The Deathsniffer’s Assistant is an intriguing story built around a late Victorian/early Edwardian type of society. What we have really are two stories woven around one young man POV: a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery and an alternate universe urban fantasy in which elementals can be magically enslaved. The world building is superb and the split focus makes for a robust read.
Story: Young aristocrat Christopher lost his parents when air elementals mysteriously unbound, causing a revolutionary floating palace to fall to the ground. Now, years later, he protects a young sister whose unusually strong wizard skills would make her a target to be used and abused – all the while trying to keep financially afloat. With funds drying up, he uses his wordweaving talent to take a job as a secretary/assistant to a Deathsniffer – a detective. As he becomes embroiled in a case of a Duchess with a dead husband, his fragile balance of protecting his sister yet also earning enough income to keep them safe will become perilously endangered. For the Deathsniffer is a force unto herself and his sister doesn’t want to be hidden any longer.
Despite the proliferation of Holmesian type novels lately, this one avoids the boring “eccentric paired with grounded logical individual” archetype. Deathsniffer Farraday is quirky but also firmly grounded in reality (perhaps even more so than Christopher himself). Chris, meanwhile, is juggling so many responsibilities the he no longer has time for any of the obvious. It makes him a sympathetic character and also adds needed depth and dimension. Watson was, after all, always eclipsed by Holmes but that isn’t the case here. The result is some sharp and witty dialogue, more trenchant insight than humorous anecdotes
Because this is a fantasy (or perhaps an alternate universe), world building is so important. I greatly appreciated the little details – from fire emanating salamanders to distinctive job titles linked to ‘magic’ abilities – word weaver for writer, truth seeker for policeman, life knitter for doctors, etc. The were many clever choices made in the writing of this book.
The mystery to be solved had many surprising turns leading to a satisfying conclusion. Tantalizing hints are also given that Christopher is more than he realizes – and has a past that he, as an unreliable narrator, is clearly not aware of at this time. Those hints make me hope the next volume in the series is soon forthcoming. In all, a very enjoyable read of a solid urban fantasy/mystery. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.