Throughout the Sherlock Holmes canon, Dr. John Watson is proven to be a man of letters. It is Watson who writes down Holmes’s adventures and tells the good yarn. Much has changed about the dynamic of Holmes and Watson in the new Holmes-inspired SF novel A Study in Honor—namely, the Holmes and Watson in question are now Sara and Janet, a black, queer, thoroughly modern dynamic duo—but Watson’s affinity for books is forever.
Sprinkled throughout this “first” novel by Claire O’Dell (anom de plume for fantasy author Beth Bernobich) are references to Watson’s reading list, which is packed to the gills with meaty, diverse, interesting—and entirely existent— speculative fiction. It’s great fun, as an SFF reader, to see O’Dell name-drop real books and authors as having influenced her character, as reality intrudes into the fictional.
In celebration of their fandom—both Janet Watson’s and her creator’s—we’ve highlighted her top-shelf recommendations for you. It shouldn’t take much deductive reasoning for you to see why you ought to read them, too.
Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott
Self-described by Dr. Janet Watson as a sentimental favorite, the opener of Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy has a lot going on, and not only owing to its ambitious premise. Imagine first, if you will, an Earth where the ice age never ended. Then, fast-forward to an alternative 19th-century Europe, and add in spirits, ghouls, and all manner of magic and mayhem. Cat Barahal thinks she understand her world, but that’s before she’s drawn into a web of intrigue as stunning as anything Sara Holmes could throw at a person.
All Systems Red, by Martha Wells
On the surface, Watson and Wells’s Murderbot wouldn’t seem to have that much in common (and to be fair, only Wells herself is name dropped, not her disgruntled, autonomous cyborg creation). But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that the good doctor and robo-bodyguard could turn into quite the companions. After hacking its governor module, Murderbot (the security unit’s chosen appellation) becomes its own boss and, instead of violently overthrowing the system, decides to go on an extended Netflix binge. The humor, the disillusionment, and, yes, the empathy Murderbot displays aren’t dissimilar to those of Watson, caught up herself in a system designed for anything but her well-being.
Dawn, by Octavia Butler
“I could almost imagine myself as Lilith aboard the alien spacecraft, looking across the vast distance to an Earth that was no longer hers.” Things aren’t going Janet’s way when she utters that line, but becoming entangled with a Holmes will do that for you. Alone and on the precipice of a decision that will change the course of her life, Watson experiences situations with a number of parallels to those facing Butler’s Lilith, who is awakened hundreds of years after an apocalyptic war on earth by members of an alien race intent on rehabilitating and remaking humans. Dawn, the first entry in the Lilith’s Brood series, is a powerful story of identity that will resonate with more than just Watson.
“The Great Detective”, by Delia Sherman
Watson name-drops Sherman as an addition to her bookshelf, and if I get to pick which book to recommend on her behalf, I can’t not recommend Sherman’s own steampunk Holmes offering. (You should read her full-length novels, too, of course.) A Tor.com original, this short story is framed by an encounter between Sir Arthur Cwmlech, whose Illogic Machine has been stolen, his wily assistant Miss Tacy Gof, and the inimitable Mycroft Holmes. A familiar face or two pop up along the way, but the stars of this show are the automatons Sherman has crafted with characteristic cleverness and empathy.
Everfair, by Nisi Shawl
A Study in Honor provides an alternative future; Everfair offers a look at an alternative past, one with a reimagined Belgian Congo. In the late 19th century, the colony of Everfair is intended to be a safe haven for escaped slaves and Africans fleeing Belgium’s occupation and repression of the Congo. The colony is a marvel of steampunk technology, a veritable Utopia, that serves as Shawl’s meditation on what might have been. It’s a moving reminder of all that was lost in colonization and a fitting pairing to the traumatic future envisioned in this Holmes and Watson outing.
Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson
Hopkinson’s first novel features a comparably crumbling and bleak future. Whereas A Study in Honor imagines Washington, D.C., penned in by a racist insurrection through the American heartland, Brown Girl in the Ring finds us in Toronto, a dystopian landscape that forces Ti-Jeanne, a new mother, into the home and arms of her mysterious grandmother. Like Watson, Ti-Jeanne is forced to confront truths about herself and her past to forge a way forward.