A Study in Honor is the first book in the Janet Watson Chronicles, a new series by RT Reviewers’ Choice Award–winning author Beth Bernobich writing as Claire O’Dell. This reimagining of Sherlock Holmes is set in a not-too-distant future America during a second civil war and recasts the detective and Dr. Watson as two black women living in Washington, D.C.

This novel, told through Janet Watson’s first person perspective and journal entries, starts with her journey to and arrival in the nation’s capital before she meets enigmatic Sara Holmes. After having served as a surgeon in the New Civil War, Janet was forced to return to civilian life and begin anew after a bullet shattered her arm. Though another surgeon supplied her with a mechanical limb, he had limited options available to choose from and had hoped the VA would be able to set her up with a better replacement after her honorable discharge. However, Janet soon learns that they do not consider this to be a priority—and she will not be able to perform surgical procedures until she has been set up with an improved apparatus.

While in the midst of searching for a new job and a permanent residence, Janet runs into a friend at the VA who tells her that his friend Sara Holmes is seeking a roommate. He warns her that Sara can be difficult, but Janet meets with her anyway—and regrets it when their first encounter abruptly ends with her fleeing from Sara’s blunt observations about her innermost fears. After receiving an apologetic note from her, Janet decides to give her a second chance and view the apartment, which turns out to be so lovely that she is swayed into agreeing to live there with Sara.

In the course of her new job as a medical technician at the VA, Janet becomes concerned about the condition of a particular patient, and shortly thereafter, sees that an upcoming appointment with her was canceled because she’s deceased. When Janet attempts to look into the circumstances of her death further, she discovers that this patient’s records were mysteriously deleted from their system. With Sara’s resources and aid, Janet soon realizes she’s stumbled into something more than the death of a single veteran, something that someone is willing to kill to keep secret—and the two are determined to solve the case.

A Study in Honor is one of those books that I thought had a great concept but could have been far better executed. Though Janet’s characterization was well done and Sara was intriguing in theory, it was also slow and the promising dynamic between the two main characters never quite gelled. That said, science fiction mysteries that focus on the plot more than the speculative fiction aspects often do not entirely work for me, and a lot of people have enjoyed this far more than I did—so if this sounds like a book you might like, you may want to take my opinion on it with a large grain of salt!

This is Janet’s story, and I thought she herself was the strongest part of the novel. When she first returns to DC, she doesn’t have much of a personal support system—her parents are dead, her sister moved across the country, and the woman she loved is now engaged to another—plus she has PTSD from her wartime experience in addition to the missing arm. Her fear and rage are quite palpable, and earlier parts of the story particularly do a fantastic job of showing her sheer grit and determination as she keeps moving forward: not only the process of finding employment and housing but also managing everyday activities like eating and just getting herself from day to day. Since she can no longer perform surgery, she ends up taking a lesser-paying job as a medical technician for which she’s overqualified. This new role involves asking patients a few routine questions before they meet with a doctor, and the way she goes above and beyond the outlined job description to help and fight for them brings to life her compassion and devotion to justice.

Sara had potential to be fascinating but was a little too mysterious in this first installment to be truly compelling, even though I liked the bones of her personality. As usual for Holmes, she can be uncomfortably direct, and she has a tendency to think she knows the best way of handling things without having any need to consult others. These traits lead Sara to make mistakes that cause friction with Janet, but it also does seem as though she’s a caring person whose heart is usually in the right place.

The seeds were certainly sown for Janet and Sara’s relationship to become interesting, but I felt like most of the interactions between the two main characters bordered on engaging without quite getting there. In particular, I thought that Sara’s inclination to leave notes for Janet instead of speaking to her face to face meant there were some missed opportunities for memorable scenes between them (such as when Sara expressed her regrets about how their first meeting ended). It seemed reasonable for her to do this, but it didn’t have the same impact that dialogue between them could have had.

Even though there was much I liked about the foundations of the novel, the whole never quite came together for me in many ways. A Study in Honor could be mildly entertaining at times, but I thought it dragged at other times. There were more journal entries than I thought were necessary, and there were far too many mundane details about Janet’s new job that could have been cut, such as the specifics of how she logged in to the system. Furthermore, I just wasn’t that interested in the hows or whys of the mystery or the investigation other than wanting to see Janet and Sara get to the bottom of it to prevent further deaths from occurring. The setting was also very much like the present other than the civil war and some of the technology—which is not necessarily a bad thing for a near future setting, but at the same time, I didn’t find a backdrop so similar to the world in which I already live all that captivating.

A Study in Honor is composed of some artful elements, particularly the recreation of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson through a feminist lens, and I did think the character of Janet Watson was a success. However, I found the novel was ultimately missing that difficult to define, deeply personal “spark” that would have made me eager to keep turning the pages (though I did finish reading it!).

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Electronic ARC from the publisher.

Read a Sample from A Study in Honor