Give the People What They Want, Which is Holmes & Watson in Love (and Genderbent): Reviewing Vienna by William S. Kirby

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson shared a close, professional kinship in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works. But we’re all about the reb22083094oot/rebrand/reimagining: Guy Ritchie’s 2009 entry (and inevitable sequel) with America’s favorite comeback kid, Robert Downey Jr., and co-star Jude Law was, shall we say, homoerotic (bonus gif set!). And do not wade into the Tumblr waters for posts about BBC’s Sherlock; you will find a lot of Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman. CBS’s Elementary does us one better with a male/female duo, casting the fantastic Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson.

Yep, for some reason, people adore the “Johnlock” OTP. And if you feel the partnership hasn’t quite hit its mark with modern audiences, you might want to give William S. Kirby‘s Vienna a read.  Set in the modern era, Kirby applies a clever hand to typical Holmes/Watson pairing. He links them right from the start, opening with Justine waking up in Vienna’s bed:

Awake under a hollow sunrise, Justine Am sought cover behind a hangover that wasn’t there. The previous night’s drinking had consisted of two sips of vodka drowning in peach liqueur. She’d switched to tonic water well before the pink eyedropper of liquid ecstasy made its rounds. Not that she would’ve taken part. Boredom was cheaper and it unleashed the same chaos, Sprawled across a stranger’s swaybacked bed, Justine still felt the subterranean echo of house electronica pacing behind her rib cage: boom, boom, boom. She’d fallen in with a post-tribal, post-trance, post-everything crowd. World-weary gods draped over the cherry and onyx pillows of Holler. They’d offered her a sucker’s bet and she’d raised the stakes right into this bed.

Damn. That is the first paragraph. If you don’t like that lived-in, bohemian* writing style, you will not enjoy this book. But if you appreciated that excerpt, you must read this book. It builds, picking up steam as we follow Justine and Vienna around Europe. A trip to Iceland starts with “Iceland was tethered to jet stream clouds, indigo and umber layers pearl-smooth in the lengthening shadow of the world.”

Gah, I’m so immersed in Kirby’s damn fine writing that I’m drowning.

Justine is a world-class model, noted not just for her beauty, but her exceptional talent at exhibiting the feminine archetype:

…what sets her apart is the ability to project the essence of the female form. Not just tits and ass, but psyche as well. It’s a profoundly strong archetype that provokes an equally strong reaction. Even if you were her twin, you lack the ability to step outside herself…A camera points our way and we take a self-conscious heartbeat to decide what image to present. That forever excludes us from the realm of Justine Am.

Vienna’s Holmesian characterization lends a new perspective to our modern reimagining. Beyond skilled, observational, socially misunderstood/awkward, or a drug addict, Vienna is described as an autistic savant (with some characters using far harsher terms). It’s a dramatic change to the Holmes character (though it’s been discussed at length before). Kirby goes all-in, leaving no question about Vienna. Kirby commits to a character that will probably challenge your perceptions, and he does so with masterful, subtle tact. Vienna fits in quite well with her canonical counterpart, arguably a capable character hamstrung by his own social shortcomings.

Really, for as much as I loved the gorgeous writing, it’s the complex relationship between Justine and Vienna that makes the book so memorable. These characters feel unique, fully fleshed-out on their own and as partners. Vienna offers ample space to discuss subverting traditional gender (and literary) norms. If you’ve also read the book, I’d love to hear what you think about the depiction of female characters; please drop a note in the comments!

Vienna is available from Macmillan-Tor/Forge on September 1st. Early review copy provided by NetGalley for consideration.

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*polished, but still a little rough around the edges

2 thoughts on “Give the People What They Want, Which is Holmes & Watson in Love (and Genderbent): Reviewing Vienna by William S. Kirby

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