Imagine, if you will, Sherlock Holmes, only he’s been transformed into a queer Latinx woman with a penchant for piracy, thievery, invention, and exasperating her boring but stolid right-hand man Watson Simms. Make it steampunk Denver and a dash of zombies and you have Murder on the Titania and other Steam-Powered Adventures. It’s the queer Holmes adaptation you’ve been waiting for without the undertones of (and sometimes blatant) bigotry of the original stories, but with an added bonus of fucking with patriarchal and gendered norms whenever possible. Have I sold you yet?
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Run-Down
Captain Marta Ramos, the most notorious pirate in the Duchy of Denver, has her hands full between fascinating murder mysteries, the delectable and devious Delilah Nimowitz, Colonel Geoffrey Douglas (the Duke of Denver’s new head of security), a spot of airship engineering and her usual activities: piracy, banditry and burglary. Not to mention the horror of high society tea parties. In contrast, Simms, her second in command, longs only for a quiet life, filled with tasty sausages and fewer explosions. Or does he? Join Captain Ramos, Simms and their crew as they negotiate the perils of air, land, and drawing rooms in a collection of 4 novellas and one short story set in a North America that never was.
The Good Stuff
When I first heard “steampunk, genderbent, queer Sherlock Holmes,” my reaction was that this could either be amazing or terrible. I’m quite pleased to say it’s firmly the former.
Acks writing is fast-paced, atmospheric, and genre-appropriate. The first story in Murder on the Titania and other Steam-Powered Adventures (hereafter, Murder on the Titania), the eponymous “Murder on the Titania,” establishes the steampunk world and ambiance right away without being kitschy or forced. The introduction of the “Infected,” lends itself to the more fantastical side of steampunk. The US being broken up into warring duchies allows for the existence of the Victorian aesthetic outside of its more typical British setting, and it works extremely well. I didn’t realize Salt Lake as steampunk could be believable, yet here we are
I’m honestly impressed with how well Acks manages to stay consistently within genre conventions across these stories, even when it comes to characters. Our first point of view character, Colonel Geoffrey Douglas, is very much the consummate Victorian soldier: stiff, professional, correct, and uncomfortable with women. Other characters we meet are equally genre-specific, yet without feeling stale or thinly characterized. Acks seems to take pleasure in subverting expectations while still sticking within what’s expected. Douglas may underestimate Ramos at first, but he’s no foolish lawman that our protagonist can easily outsmart.
Speaking of the lady of the hour, let’s talk about Captain Marta Ramos, the “pirate, inventor, and gleefully self-proclaimed thorn in the side of many a Duke and Duchess.” When the action at the end of the first novella shifts to Captain Ramos’ perspective—a genius introduction of her character that involves spoilers, so I won’t go into it—we meet a character at once at home in her genre and at odds with her environment. She’s everything I wanted out of a female adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Heck, she’s better than most of the male ones and right up there with Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal on Elementary, which is my favorite of the recent visual adaptations.
“Captain Ramos was not a woman who took well to boredom.”
“Captain Ramos seemed to only have two categories for classification when it came to the world—interesting and boring.”
She’s outwardly about as opposite from the original Sherlock as one could be—queer, non-white, a pirate/thief instead of upper class—yet she retains all the important internal character elements. She’s driven by rationality, intellect, and a fierce desire to avoid boredom. There’s a good layer of levity and whimsy to her character as well, which was present in the original Sherlock yet many of the most recent adaptations have failed to carry over. At some point I’d like to learn about how she became the way she is, but the lack of backstory isn’t a deal breaker. I just love watching her work and listening to her thoughts. She’s captivating. I might want to kiss her…
Anyway, all this exists without making her a complete asshole, stigmatizing neurodiverse people, or queerbaiting! (*cough* BBC’s Sherlock)
The introduction to Deliah, Captain Ramos’ adversary/potential love interest works well as a twist on “A Study in Scarlet.” Like everything else in this collection, you can see the inspiration behind the characters and action, but it’s still thoroughly its own story. Deliah isn’t Irene Adler, but you can see how she could have evolved from Doyle’s character. She’s also an excellent foil for Ramos and a delightful potential lover. The chemistry between Deliah and Marta crackles, and I can’t wait to see more from them.
Captain Ramos’ faithful assistant Merriweather Octavian Simms—preferably known as Simms—functions equally well as a foil for Ramos. His loyalty to her paired with his distaste for anything she finds ‘interesting’ out of a seeming desire for a more stable, boring existence plays well off of her intellect driven need for something interesting in her life. He’s the “Marta, no” to her “Marta, yes,” and I just adore his pov when read alongside hers. They’re great together.
Murder on the Titania is, in many ways, a Victorian setting suffused with anti-Victorian sentiments. The stories honestly reflect Victorian views on women, yet never endorse those views. Sexist assumptions face derision and rejection at every turn. Most of the time, Ramos uses these assumptions to her advantage, which serves the purpose of highlighting just how ridiculous, anachronistic, and wrong those beliefs are.
A super smart, queer woman of color protagonist mitigates the potential ick factor of the Victorian views about women—or at least the popular depiction thereof—without making her too Not Like Other Girls. The existence of Deliah, Amelia, Lisa, Jun Xing, Clementine, and other intelligent, capable women alongside Marta Ramos evinces that for Acks, this isn’t just a Smurfette story. Not everyone might side with me here, but I found the inclusion of the more patriarchal elements of steampunk in order to highlight just how absurd they highly enjoyable.
“I tend to think that murder is a crime against nature, and the rest is none of your concern.”
Also enjoyable? The morbid/gallows style humor that both Marta and Simms display throughout. The irreverence delights me, even more so given how rare a trait it is to find in a female protagonist. It’s just the right tone to strike for both this kind adventure/mystery story in general and a Holmsian character specifically.
“Murdered twice and then robbed. Not a good week for her.”
Publishing a collection of short stories and novellas that have previously been published has its pitfalls. For one, choosing an order and deciding which to include that doesn’t replicate any previous publications. To my mind, Murder on the Titania did an overall decent job on this account, but it isn’t perfect. While “Murder on the Titania” is an excellent introduction to the world and Marta, and both it and “The Flying Turk” work well as an inclusion, there were times in between when the order felt off.
“The Jade Tiger” felt out of place when I first read it, given its lack of specificity and connection to any of the other stories. When I discovered that it was, in fact, the first Marta Ramos story written, that made more sense. However, I still think it could have been updated to make it more connected to the novellas. In “The Ugly Tin Orrery” Ramos mentions “encounters” (plural) with Colonel Douglas, yet we’d only seen or heard of the one, “Murder on the Titania,” up to this point.
I wasn’t really sure how the Infected fit into this world either. After doing some research, I learned that there is another story featuring this aspect of Acks’ world more prominently, a previously published but not currently available “Blood in Elk Creek.” While it’s nice to know there is more to the reanimated dead than what we get in Murder on the Titania, I can’t help but think that as it stands now, the zombie element feels more like set dressing or an afterthought. Not that I mind, the stories are enjoyable as is. However, it’s easy to forget it’s a part of the world. So easy, that when you’re confronted with it again, it can be slightly jarring.
Finally, certain turns of phrase do not fit the setting perfectly at times. They’re never enough to take me out of the world or ruin my enjoyment, but they exist. I also wish that there was a bit more of an explanation of certain terminology. Maybe it’s because I’m not a regular steampunk reader, but I had to look up several of the mechanical terms and objects. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter all that much. However, in “The Ugly Tin Orrery,” the mystery is a heck of a lot harder to puzzle out if you don’t know what an orrery is.
Final Score: 8/10
Murder on the Titania and Marta Ramos are utterly charming, delightfully irreverent, and one of the best adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories I’ve seen in a good long while. Despite a few minor consistency issues due to placement order of the stories and a few ‘out of universe’ phrases, this collection hangs together well. It’s a great introduction to a fascinating character and world, and I wish I could read the other two previously published stories. Perhaps they’ll get published again soon in another collection? Here’s hoping we get more of Captain Marta Ramos from Alex Acks!
About the Author
Author Alex Acks is a writer, geologist, and sharp-dressed sir. Their biker gang space witch novels, Hunger Makes the Wolf, winner of the 2017 Golden Tentacle for Debut Novel at the Kitschies Awards, and Blood Binds the Pack were published by Angry Robot Books under the pen name Alex Wells. They’ve also had short fiction in Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed and more, and written movie reviews for Strange Horizons and Mothership Zeta. They’ve also written several episodes of Six to Start’s Superhero Workout game. Alex lives in Denver (where they bicycle, drink tea, and twirl their ever-so-dapper mustache) with their two furry little bastards.
Note: The author of this review received a copy of the book in exchange for a free and honest review.