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The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (thoughts)

February 18, 2009

The Beekeeper's ApprenticeTwo years ago, I found Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprenticeunder the Christmas tree. Later that night, I curled up with it, and I found myself swept up in pre-World War I England, an intelligent young girl named Mary Russell, and her new mentor: Sherlock Holmes.

I managed to space out reading the following seven in the series over 2007, but after finishing Locked Rooms I felt bereft. So after going all of 2008 without Russell and Holmes, I decided to reread the series in 2009.

Thus, we come back to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. I was a little nervous when I first picked it up, but I shouldn’t have worried. It was just as wonderful the second time around! And now I’m going to talk about the actual book, so those of you going “Russell? Holmes?! Eva, what are you rambling on about in your cold-medication-affected brain?” will be satisfied. ;)

Mary Russell is an extraordinarily intelligent fifteen-year-old who, after the death of her parents and brother, has relocated to the British countryside with a mean aunt as a guardian. Although she’s an heiress, until she comes of age she’s stuck under her aunt’s thumb (who actually plays almost no part in the story). So she’s out wandering one day, when she stumbles across a retired Sherlock Holmes, who is trying to enjoy himself as a country beekeeper. Mary’s intelligence matches his own, and Holmes takes her under his wing.

This book is different from most mystery books, and from the other books in the series, because it doesn’t have one murder. It follows Russell from that day at fifteen through her first couple of years at Oxford, and there are several mini-cases that show the development of her detecting powers. Then, the second half of the book is devoted to Russell and Holmes trying to defeat an enemy whose cunning and determination to destroy them matches that of the infamous Moriarty.

So what makes me love this book, and the series, so much? Definitely the characters. I just adore Russell. King handles her development from awkward adolescence to a young woman beginning to blossom with a deft hand (I can see my transformation of the past few years in Russell). Plus, the narrator of the story isn’t an omniscient third person or anything; it’s an older Mary Russell. Her wry tone and observations add another layer to the book that makes it that much more wonderful! I’m also a big fan of King’s Sherlock Holmes: his dry insight that covers his true compassion. And he’s hilarious, in that great British way. The supporting characters-Mycroft (Holmes’ brother), Mrs. Hudson (the housekeeper), and Uncle John (aka Watson)-are nicely rounded out as well.

Strengthening the characters is King’s marvelous ear for dialogue. Everyone speaks in intelligent, amusing ways, but it never stops being realistic (there’s a good dose of everday conversations as well). And each character’s voice is unique to them; you don’t need markers to tell who’s speaking, which to me is a sign of a great writer.

In addition to creating lovable characters, King has a real knack for evoking sense of place and time. It’s not a direct thing I can point to immediately; it’s more a sense that pervades the book. It *feels* historical. And while King doesn’t dwell on descriptions, she can quickly sketch a place. Here’s a taste, describing Holmes’ cottage:

Outside the French doors lay an expanse of flagstones, sheltered from the wind by a glass conservatory that grew off the kitchen wall and by an old stone wall with herbaceous border that curved around the remaining two sides. The terrace gathered in the heat until its air danced, and I was relieved when he continued down to a gorup of comfortable-looking wooden chairs in the shade of an enormous copper beech. I chose a chair that looked down towards the Channel, over the head of a small orchard that lay in a hollow below us.

See what I mean?

I hope I’ve convinced you to give the series a try. It’s one of my very favourites, and I think it’ll appeal to anyone who enjoys wonderful characters, British lit, historical lit, or of course mysteries. So pretty much anyone! *hint, hint* Tomorrow, there’ll be a first here at A Striped Armchair: Laurie King will be stopping by in a guest post. She’s celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the publication of The Beekeeper’s Apprenticewith a blog tour, and thanks to serendipity her publiscist noticed when I had it in my ‘Currently Reading’ sidebar and got in touch with me! And for you fellow Russell devotees, you might be interested to know that Laurie King has a blog with occasional guest posts by Russell herself!

Ok, I’m going back to watching documentaries in my medicine-coma. But you should definitely read this book soon if you haven’t already! And the series only gets better from here. ;)

41 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2009 7:30 am

    You’ve convinced me! I had no idea these books contained a Holmes character, and it sounds like the characterization through dialog is excellent.

  2. February 18, 2009 7:32 am

    You’ve convinced me to give this one a try! It sounds really great and it must be if it is worth a reread. Thanks Eva!

  3. February 18, 2009 7:53 am

    I love this series as well. I’m glad that you found it holds up to rereading. I suspected that it would and I may follow along with you on a reread of my own! And there’s a new one due out this year isn’t there? I look forward to stopping in to read Laurie King’s guest post tomorrow.

  4. February 18, 2009 8:04 am

    I am definitely going to try this! I love mysteries as it is, and this sounds like exactly my cup of tea. I haven’t read all of Sherlock Holmes, though; will I enjoy the book just as much, or wait until I’ve read more Holmes first?

  5. February 18, 2009 8:08 am

    These books are among my favorites as well. As a younger person, I read everything Holmes, and became accustomed as a reader to everyone cowing before him. Russell is such a great character and such a match for him. Truly makes Holmes believably human for the first time in my reading experience.

  6. February 18, 2009 9:45 am

    Okay, you’ve sold me. I love mysteries & went through a Holmesian phase just like every other would-be detective. Keeping an eye out for the Amado too. Thanks!!

  7. February 18, 2009 9:46 am

    If you like Sherlock Holmes continuations, you really should read “The Final Solution” by Michael Chabon which deals with an unnamed former “consulting detective” who now keeps bees in Sussex and who becomes involved with an African Gray parrot who recites mysterious strings of numbers in German, a mute 9 year old boy, a refugee from Nazi Germany, who looks after the parrot, and nefarious doings during World War II.

  8. February 18, 2009 9:54 am

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series! And since I love Chabon, I gues “The Final Solution” will go on my list, too- nice to combine Chabon and another Holmes continuation.

  9. tuulenhaiven permalink
    February 18, 2009 10:01 am

    Excellent – I have been trying to work up the courage to read this series again. I loved it the first time round, and am glad that you think it’s just as good the second time. Definitely looking forward to Laurie King’s post!

  10. J.S. Peyton permalink
    February 18, 2009 10:02 am

    I remember you telling me about this before Eva, and it’s been on my TBR ever since. I really, really should bump it up, shouldn’t I? Oddly, one of the reasons I haven’t bought it yet is because I really want the edition above but every time I think to look for it the bookstore doesn’t carry it. Ah, well. I’ll still keep an eye out. This sounds like it would be a great summer read.

  11. February 18, 2009 10:25 am

    I have the series on my shelf unread. You have inspired me; Thanks for posting.

  12. February 18, 2009 10:52 am

    You’ve convinced me. The book sounds great!

  13. February 18, 2009 11:45 am

    To be honest I never wanted to read the series because of the Holmes character. Not that I have anything against Holmes but something about that just didn’t appeal to me. However I keep hearing such wonderful things about this book! I really enjoyed your review and believe it or not I do have the book somewhere in the stacks (a library sale find). So one of these days I will give it a try.

  14. February 18, 2009 12:30 pm

    Sounds great!

  15. Pat Floyd permalink
    February 18, 2009 12:40 pm

    These books are great no matter how many times you reread them. They are a comfort read with real substance and complexity, a variety of locations and situations carefully researched. I think JUSTICE HALL is one of the great books of the decade. You don’t need to read Sherlock Holmes first. King’s Sherlock Holmes is a post WWI Sherlock whom Conan Doyle never wrote about. The Victorian Era has passed, besides Mary Russell is the main character sharing the stage with Holmes.

  16. February 18, 2009 1:03 pm

    I am reading this right now! I just posted about buying it, and everyone raved so much that I started it right away. And, you have answered another question of mine, which is how is the rest of the series. I see I have much to look forward to. And I love the new editions – so nice! I can’t wait for your post tomorrow – should I be wary of spoilers??

  17. adevotedreader permalink
    February 18, 2009 1:08 pm

    I was dubious about a series with Sherlock Holmes in not not written by Conan Doyle, but was pleasantly suprised! Like yourself Eva, Itried to make the books last as long as possible. Look forward to the guest post and the new Mary Russell book.

  18. February 18, 2009 1:45 pm

    This sounds like a gorgeous book Eva – and exactly the kind of book I am in the mood to read at the moment. I will have to look out for it.

  19. February 18, 2009 5:31 pm

    When I picked up The Beekeeper’s Apprentice last year, I had no idea it was the first in a series. Of course, after I read it – and adored it – I was so happy to find out there were several more Holmes/Russell adventures ahead of me. I just recently finished O Jerusalem, book 5. I plan to pick up book six after I finish a book tour obligation and an ARC.

  20. February 18, 2009 5:42 pm

    I’ve added it to my list!

  21. February 18, 2009 5:54 pm

    I am feeling so overwhelmed lately with everything that I want to read and this is on the list! I need a long reading vacation … (a vacation WITH reading, not FROM reading)

  22. February 18, 2009 8:46 pm

    I started this series about the time the third book came out, and I’ve devoured every book since. I’m not particularly a Holmes fan, but I still find them to be accessible. (The Moor is the only one where I felt at sea.)

    Laurie King’s standalone books are also very good. (I can’t speak to the Martinelli series because I got annoyed with a plot device in the first book and abandoned it midway through. I really must give those another try.)

  23. February 18, 2009 9:18 pm

    Sounds great! I’ve added it to my TBR list!

  24. February 19, 2009 12:33 am

    Oh, I can’t wait to dig into this series!! I actually own this book too…why I haven’t read it yet is beyond me.

  25. February 19, 2009 2:44 pm

    This is right at the top of my list of books to read once I reduce my TBR. I’ve heard nothing but praise for this series.

  26. February 19, 2009 3:21 pm

    All right, on the TBR list it goes!

  27. Wanda permalink
    February 19, 2009 11:23 pm

    I was never one for re-reading with so much still tbr for the first time. Then I saw that Laurie had a Virtual Book Club (VBC) so I decided to check it out. I’ve been re-reading and discussing ever since! I’ve found I even enjoyed them more the second time around, and I’m hoping we will go through them all again, to fill in the time in-between new releases!

  28. February 20, 2009 5:25 am

    I’ve been meaning to re-read this one and to make my way through the series (when I read it the first time, only the first two had been published, and I read both of them). You’ve made me realized I must do so sooner rather than later, especially since I just read some Sherlock Holmes.

  29. February 21, 2009 6:12 am

    Jeane, great!

    Samantha, I hoep you enjoy it! :)

    Kate, yep-a new one is due out in April. Just in time for my birthday! ;)

    Steph, I’ve barely read much original Holmes (I don’t really like Doyle’s stories, actually), so I wouldn’t worry about it!

    Frances, that’s why I don’t like Doyle’s stories much-the cowing before him. I much prefer Russell to Watson! :)

    DS, great!

    Hedgie, you always give the best suggestions! I just read my first Chabon and was blown away, so on to the TBR list this goes.

    JenClair, I totally agree. ;)

    Teelenhaiven, I definitely enjoyed it as much the second rime around!

    J.S. Peyton, yeah-I have the not-pretty mass market paper editions. But I totally covet the new trade ones-they’re so pretty!

    Diane, glad to inspire you!

    BermudaOnion, hope you enjoy it!

    Iliana, I don’t like Doyle’s Holmes, and I like this series. ;)

    Charley, it is! hehe

    Pat, Justice Hall is an awesome read.

    Tara, awesome!

    ADevotedReader, I don’t have the attachment to the original Holmes that would make me nervous. I can understand it, though-I’d never read a non-Austen book that contains her characters. :)

    Karen, I hope you can find it!

    Carrie, Justice Hall is the next one and it’s great!

    Alyce, awesome!

    Kristen, I’m pretty much on a reading vacation now (due to illness), so I can understand why you’d want it!

    Teresa, I totally agree. :) I haven’t tried King’s other books, because I’m afraid they won’t be as good, lol.

    Sarah, great!

    Chris, you and your TBR case! (As if I didn’t have the exact same thing.)

    Memory, I haven’t heard a bad review of the series either.

    Chartroose, wonderful!

    Wanda, I love rereading, but I think it’s especially impressive that this is a *mystery* series I enjoy rereading, you know?

    Emily, my favourites are probably Justice Hall and The Game, followed closely by The Moor. :)

  30. February 21, 2009 6:48 pm

    I think it’s pretty cool that LK did a guest post! I actually prefer her Kate Martinelli series that starts with A Grave Talent ( because I prefer contemporary mysteries to historical. And I love series set in San Francisco.

    King’s stand-alone mysteries are also top notch.

  31. February 21, 2009 8:32 pm

    You’ve convinced me for sure…I’m going to the library first thing tomorrow and check this out.

    I’ve read some her Kate Martinelli series, and enjoyed them. Don’t know why I haven’t tried these before :)

  32. February 22, 2009 3:24 pm

    Rose City Reader, I was really excited about the guest post!! :) I usually prefer historical mysteries to contemporary, but I’m sure one day I’ll try out A Grave Talent. San Francisco seemsl ike a neat place!

    Becca, I hope you love it. :)


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