I’ve decided it makes sense to talk about these books together, in part because the plots are connected between each book and the character arcs would make little sense without reading them both, but mostly I want to talk about both of these books because they are unsatisfying reads on their own. The Language of Bees is, in fact, a particularly mediocre installment of the Mary Russell series, with a dreary not-quite mystery and a barely-explained cult-like religion, and new characters that never feel quite real. The God of the Hive, on the other hand, has real moments of great suspense, and even better moments of character development; but without The Language of Bees the book would probably be a dud. You need the set-up, even if it’s hundreds of pages of set-up.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those unfamiliar with Laurie R. King’s delightful Mary Russell series (of which these are books #9 and #10), the books are a convincing return to that well-loved figure, Sherlock Holmes. In the early part of the twentieth century, Holmes, mostly retired, takes up an apprentice and then a partner and then a wife in the form of Mary Russell, a brilliant young woman with skills to rival his own. The first two books of the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and A Monstrous Regiment of Women, explore the early stages of Holmes and Russell’s relationship.
By the time we reach The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive, the pair are mostly settled — or so it seems. Coming from an adventure-filled year abroad, Russell and Holmes are ready to return to their calm home in Sussex, but the entrance of a young man named Damian Adler, an artist whose wife has recently gone missing, threatens to jeopardize Holmes’s notorious objectivity and shake Russell’s faith in her partner’s determination to pursue the truth. The Language of Bees ends on a cliffhanger: we learn the truth about Damian Adler and his wife’s fate, but in the process, Holmes and Russell must temporarily part for their own safety, and for the safety of those they are trying to protect.
In The God of the Hive, we watch as government agencies, dangerous aeroplane rides, and storm-tossed seas endanger Russell and Holmes, and keep them separated. With its musings on the effects of the Great War and the aging of the Holmes brothers (Mycroft plays an important role in both books), as well as the deeper consideration of characters like Damian Adler and the introduction of figures like Robert Goodman, a seemingly supernatural wild man living in the woods of northern England, The God of the Hive has a depth to it that The Language of Bees lacks. Even without a real mystery at its center (we know who the bad guy is from pretty early on), the book has its thrills, its moments of deception, and its emotional fallout. Even so, it ended on a somewhat underwhelming note, the mystery-turned-thriller resolving itself in a way that disappointed me, at least.
But I can never really regret returning to these characters. King’s version of Sherlock Holmes is convincing, subtle, but not superhuman — the effects of age, and a growing network of people he wishes to protect, leave him vulnerable in ways that are fascinating to read about. Her take on Mycroft Holmes is just as good; his inclusion in these two books made them all the better. But, of course, King’s genius lies in Mary Russell, the character of her own creation, the woman who stands as an equal to Sherlock Holmes but not a feminized copy of him. Their points of difference and disagreement are as satisfying as their points of similarity. Where these books fail, just a little bit, is in their failure to live up to the potential of these characters, and the consequences of who they are and the situations they have found themselves in. King touches on these issues a bit, but never fully pushes the emotional and psychological repercussions of some the events that arise. Perhaps that’s because these are meant to be mysteries, not literary fiction, but they are literary enough that I sense the potential, and I want just a little more than I’ve been given.
Last but not least, when is someone going to finally get on making a movie of the Mary Russell series? Dream casting: Jennifer Lawrence and Alan Rickman. I would watch the hell out of that.