This week: Holmes and Watson reimagined as gay African-American women living in a near-future U.S.; plus an outstanding mystery set in Rome in 89 C.E.
In the prologue of the pseudonymous Daniels’s harrowing debut, Constance Mortenson, a successful writer and happy wife and mother, meets and befriends Vanessa Jones, who has moved into her London neighborhood. Connie and Ness become fast friends and nearly inseparable, until things go horribly wrong between them. Flash forward six years. A bruised, burned, and unrecognizable Connie, who has been diagnosed with dissociative amnesia, is awaiting trial for heinous crimes that she seemingly doesn’t know she’s committed. Emma Robinson, a forensic psychiatrist, must gain Connie’s trust to determine whether the amnesia is feigned or real. Despite Emma’s reserve and professional detachment, the patient and doctor begin to bond, finding they have much in common. Emma is surprised by Connie’s warmth, charm, and wry humor, then jolted by her patient’s flashes of seething hatred and bottomless pain. Each chapter, alternatively narrated by Connie or Emma, reveals each woman’s darkest secrets and perceived sins. Daniels presents an unflinching, visceral look into the nature of love, fidelity, and betrayal.
An inauspicious death on the eve of Emperor Domitian’s planned return to Rome in 89 C.E. sets the stage for Davis’s superior seventh outing for informer Flavia Alba (after 2018’s Pandora’s Boy). The powers that be fear that the capricious Domitian will lash out, violently, after the possibly unnatural death of Gabinus, a worker helping to prepare for the imperial triumph to celebrate the emperor’s recent military victory in the east. Gabinus apparently jumped to his death from the top of the Tarpeian Rock. But the initial consensus that he was a suicide is shattered by a witness who insists that a second person was near Gabinus at the time. When the question of what actually happened falls to Roman official Tiberius Manlius Faustus, he passes the inquiry on to his wife, Flavia, who finds no shortage of people who wished the dead man ill. Davis does her usual brilliant job of integrating the history of the period, warts and all (Domitian’s ostensible victory was actually the result of his paying off the enemy’s leaders), with a fast-paced and fair whodunit. This entry reinforces her place at the top of the historical mystery pack.
Early in this riveting standalone from bestseller Johansen (Vendetta), journalist Jill Cassidy, who has recently returned from Maldara, an African nation torn apart by civil war, arranges to see forensic sculptor Eve Duncan, the heroine of the author’s main series, at Eve’s home in Atlanta. Jill, who witnessed a massacre in the village of Robaku, Maldara, offers Eve the job of reconstructing the skulls of 27 schoolchildren killed by rebel soldiers. Moved by the stories of the victims, Eve agrees after some initial hesitation. Soon after arriving in Robaku, Eve discovers that Jill also wants her to reconstruct the skull of Nils Varak, the mercenary responsible for the uprising that caused the children’s deaths. Jill is convinced that the Maldara government is engaged in a cover-up claiming that Nils is dead, and that the body they assert belongs to him is not his. Readers will keep guessing about the complex characters’ underlying motivations as the plot races toward the stunning conclusion. Best known for her paranormal romantic suspense, Johansen should win new fans with this more realistic page-turner.
Journalist Lenz blends memoir and reporting in this slim but powerful debut on the faith and politics of Middle America. After a lifetime of straining against her prescribed place within a white, Protestant world, Lenz left both her marriage and church in the wake of the 2016 election. Unable to compromise any longer with a husband who voted for Donald Trump, and unable to worship at a church that ignored violent white supremacy, divorce and departure become her only path forward. “The story of who leaves the church,” Lenz writes, “is just as important as the story of who stays.” In a series of episodic chapters, the author travels across the Midwest exploring stories of both the belonging and exclusion she finds there. Highlights include her tale of a home church that imploded around questions of authority and submission, and her tracking of a resurgent “muscular” and patriarchal Christianity. She also reveals online and physical communities built by women, queer Christians, and people of color pushed out of conservative evangelical spaces. This work will resonate with any readers interested in understanding American landscapes where white, evangelical Christianity dominates both politics and culture.
In this outstanding middle grade debut (told without commas in a mix of narration, letters, and poetry), Lockington (The Lucky Daughter for adults) introduces budding poet Makeda Kirkland, 11, a black girl adopted by a white family. Her cellist father and former violin prodigy mother move their family from Baltimore to Albuquerque, forcing Keda to leave behind her best friend, Lena, the only other black girl she knows with a mixed adoptive family like her own. While struggling to cope with racism at school, Keda, along with big sister Eve, is left to care for their increasingly erratic mother after their father goes on tour abroad. Keda’s persistent dreams of her birth mother and a family with skin that looks like hers collide with the unsettling reality of her mother’s mental illness and the frightening possibility that the only mother she’s ever known could be lost. With intimate authenticity, she explores how fierce but “colorblind” familial love can result in erasure and sensitively delineates the pain of facing casual racism, as well as the disconcerting experience of being the child of a mentally ill parent. Age 8–12.
In the pseudonymous O’Dell’s debut, A Study in Honor, which reimagined Holmes and Watson as gay African-American women living in a near-future U.S. riven by a second civil war sparked by right-wing racists, surgeon Janet Watson lost an arm. In this superb sequel, Watson, now employed by Georgetown University Hospital, is working hard to master a prosthetic replacement so that she can operate again. The inauguration of the new president, who campaigned on a promise to negotiate a peace treaty with the secessionists, is disrupted by a terror attack by the Brotherhood of Redemption. Watson is on hand to treat the wounded, and her enigmatic roommate, FBI agent Sara Holmes, is tasked with investigating how the Brotherhood managed to evade stringent security procedures and smuggle explosives into Washington, D.C. Eventually, Watson assumes an active role in Holmes’s inquiry, which requires a perilous crossing into enemy terrain. O’Dell movingly portrays a proud woman struggling to regain her professional skills in a country still plagued by racism. Readers will hope this inventive series has a long run.
In this visceral fantasy, a young woman from the land’s lowest caste must protect Phoenix Prince Jasimir and his Hawk bodyguard Tavin from the murderous machinations of a queen in order to secure survival for her people. Fie is chief-in-training of a band of Crows, who are as reviled as they are necessary; they alone can safely dispose of plague victims and grant mercy killings to them when appropriate. But when a pair of corpses turns out to be nobility on the run, Fie and her crew are drawn into a desperate scheme that pits them against a host of enemies. Pursued throughout hostile territory and gradually stripped of allies and resources, Fie must learn to trust her newfound companions while mastering her Crow-given ability to channel magic through the bones and teeth of the deceased. Owen’s debut is a passionate blend of adventure and intrigue wrapped around strong worldbuilding and a unique magic system. Fie is prickly, adaptive, and fierce, the perfect foil for both privileged prince and increasingly sympathetic guard Tavin, for whom she develops feelings. Memorable and filled with diverse characters with fluid sexualities and identities, this tale is both a satisfying standalone and the first half of a planned duology. Ages 14–up.