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Book Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Nine-Dragon Sigil

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As in Sherlock Holmes and the Sword of Osman Tim Symonds’s Sherlock Holmes and the Nine-Dragon Sigil takes John Watson and Sherlock Holmes to the furthest reaches of the British Empire and beyond. This time, we see our heroes travel to China in 1906. World powers are shifting and China is no exception. A country in which tradition and modernism are competing against each other, John Watson is recommended by Mycroft Holmes to travel to China in order to help with the modernization of the Chinese army. Yet, considering the various European and Asian powers that are interested in China, the underlying question is: who will profit from this modernization.

For once, Watson feels that he is asked to go to China in his capacity as an experienced army doctor and not as Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick. General Yuán Shì-kǎi, for whom Watson has great respect, explains the lack of an organized military to Watson, making explicit the need for self-protection and better organization.

Once Watson arrives, he soon learns that his friend has his own reasons to travel east. Together they arrive in the Forbidden City and find themselves involved in an intricate, murderous plot involving two members of the royal family.

Together, Holmes and Watson set out to fulfill both of their given tasks: Watson to make suggestions which will might help to strengthen the army, and Holmes to solve the mystery of possible attempts to take the lives of either the Empress Dowager Cixi or the Emperor Zaitian.

Soon they realize that, despite their cunning and their careful observation, their hands are mostly tied and the politics within the Forbidden City are beyond their control, even as they try to understand what is really going on within the walls of the Royal residence. Sadly, Watson comes across as rather arrogant and a little slow at times, especially since Holmes is on top of his game, but refuses to share anything at all with Watson, leaving him, and us, more in the dark than usual while coming across as purposefully reticent.

While the plot takes a while to take off, the unfolding mystery in the second half of the book is indeed thrilling. Peppered with canonical references and quotes, Symonds takes great care to get the historical facts right. As Watson carefully records all he sees and experiences, going into great detail concerning military practices and malpractices, his own equipment on the journey, China’s geography and the people he meets, the narrative often appears rather as a historiographic novel than a typical Doylean detective story. Hence, the case itself only becomes important in the second half of the novel, while the first part offers insight into major political and social issues in early 20th century China. What I found most interesting is that Watson’s familiar, occasionally imperialistic point of view is confronted with a whole different empire which he cannot quite understand, no matter how scientifically he goes about trying to record his experiences.

So, if you like historical fiction, are interested in China and the Anglo-Chinese relationship at the turn of the century and you want to see Holmes and Watson muddle their way through a place which they barely understand, this is absolutely the pastiche for you. Symonds’s has his very own, distinct writing style, which differs from Doyle’s, but it is nevertheless thoroughly enjoyable.

The book also contains an appendix which includes a glossary, an overview over English idioms used in the book, and some background reading.

A side note: While the story itself is a lovely read, what bothered me, personally, was the poor formatting of the book. Because of indentations and spaces separating paragraphs on top of unusually large print, I grew frustrated with how often I had to turn a page to move forward. The use of different fonts and font sizes on top of various formatting options of chapter headings and beginnings of chapters constantly drew my attention away from the story, which, in the end, meant that I could not quite enjoy the book as much as I undoubtedly would have had it been formatted in a more conventional way.

You can purchase the book (as paperback or kindle editions) on amazon.co.uk, amazon.com (both of these include a preview) and Symonds’s website.

A review copy was kindly provided by the author.

Maria teaches English Literature at Leipzig University, Germany, published a German introduction to Sherlock Holmes and is a fan of all things Holmes – but especially of the Canon stories and Sherlock BBC.  Contact her at @stuffasdreamsmaria@bakerstreetbabes.com

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