The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, or On the Segregation of the Queen by Laurie R. King, Bantam, 1996 (oh, wow, was it really that long ago?)
At the beginning of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Mary Russell is 15, plagued by memories of the tragic accident which killed her family, living in the unhappy household of her controlling aunt, and prone to taking long walks across Sussex Downs dressed in men’s clothing (for the utility, not because she has any particular fondness for cross-dressing. Also, it’s foreshadowing about Russell’s skill at disguise, which will come up several times later in the series.) She literally stumbles upon the supposedly retired Sherlock Holmes who is out on Sussex Downs studying bees -he insults her, she insults him, and they start an unlikely and intellectually charged friendship, and, eventually, solve a few mysteries involving missing ham, criminal butlers, kidnapped American children, and math.
I forget, sometimes, that everything that happens in Beekeeper’s Apprentice is in one book, and not the next several in the series. Russell gets tangled up in the big mystery of the book- which appears, at first, to be several smaller, unrelated incidents, and a kidnapping plot, but then reveals itself to be a larger, longer game – climaxing as Russell deliberately becomes the bait and risks both her physical and mental well-being by separating himself from Holmes, who has become the most influential and stabilizing force in her life.
Beekeeper’s Apprentice is ambitious, because it covers several years with little plot beyond the development of Holmes and Russell’s relationship. Well, I should say first that Beekeeper’s Apprentice already won the ambitious race when Laurie R. King introduced a teen-aged girl as a partner for Sherlock Holmes. Many of the criticisms I’ve read of Mary Russell characterize her as a Mary Sue, a character so perfect as to only be useful for a a vehicle for self-insertion. I find Mary Russell deeply compelling and far from perfect – and also a vehicle for self-insertion, in the best possible way. I want to know what it’s like to learn the difference between guessing and deducing, to find the scarlet thread of murder, to hide in a bolt hole, to pass as any number of mysterious characters. And through Russell – Holmes calls her exclusively by last name for the rest of the series – we get to experience the world of Sherlock Holmes. But, also, we experience the world of Russell, who is forced to come to terms with her own culpability in her family’s accident, who studies Chemistry and Theology at Oxford as though they are interchangeable, who grows from a young girl into a young woman with a sharp, creative mind. Russell grows up and grows wonderfully under the care and tutelage of Holmes, and they work cases and solve mysteries both locally and in places which require that excellence in disguise I mentioned earlier.
Russell is never the girl in need of rescuing by the harrowing hero – she gets into a fair amount of trouble through all the books, but when she’s separated from Holmes, he’s often in as much trouble as she is. They need each other, and that’s why I love the series. Russell is both an accessible character to carry the reader into Holmes’ world and a thoroughly engaging character herself whose world I want to re-visit often. You should see how worn my paperback copy of Beekeeper’s Apprentice is.
Andrea’s Random Awesomeness Count:
Traditional canon villains: 1 creative twist!
Be sure to read the rest of the books in the series – O, Jerusalem is my favorite, because, while it’s the 5th book to come out, it actually takes place during the events of Beekeeper’s Apprentice – Holmes and Russell at their most repressed!