Book Review Roundup: The Parasol Protectorate, #1-3
After reading Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series last summer/fall, I moved on to her Parasol Protectorate series, which takes place in the same fantasy-steampunk setting and made Carriger’s name. (It’s a 5-book series… the remaining 2 books are on my reading list for 2019!)
Soulless by Gail Carriger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Who said that stories involving vampires and werewolves had to be grim and Gothic? Soulless contains its share of adventure and mystery, but its tongue-in-cheek tone is established in the very first scene, in which an affronted spinster accidentally kills a vampire with her parasol. Welcome to Gail Carriger’s version of 1870s London, where werewolves fight in the queen’s regiments, vampires set the fashions, and everyone is always drinking copious amounts of tea.
Interestingly, for such a famed steampunk novel, Soulless doesn’t feature many clockwork gadgets. Instead, the plot focuses on fantasy biology: scientists in this world are eager to discover why some people can become “supernatural” (vampires/werewolves/ghosts) after death, and others can’t.
Still, the adventure/mystery plot is really just an excuse for a spiky, sparky romance. She (Alexia Tarabotti) is a no-nonsense, half-Italian spinster and secret “preternatural”: born without a soul, Alexia’s touch can make vampires and werewolves become human again for the duration of the contact. He (Lord Conall Maccon) is a big, gruff Scottish werewolf who heads up the law-enforcement agency for supernatural creatures and finds Alexia constantly in his way. Will their mutual irritation turn to passion? Will these two Alpha personalities realize how good it would be if they joined forces? Will there be a scene where Alexia touches Conall when he is in wolf form, instantly transforming him into a stark-naked Scotsman? Oh, what do you think?
Soulless definitely suffers from what I think of as “first novel problems.” The story takes a long time to get going: too often, the characters discuss events we have already witnessed, or the narrator repeats information we already know. How many times do we need to be told that Alexia’s Italian blood gives her an unfashionably big nose, dark skin, and stubborn personality?
But the climax of the book is some good fast-paced adventure, and once I realized that this was really a romance novel with some fantasy/steampunk trappings, rather than a fantasy/steampunk novel with a love interest subplot, I quite enjoyed it. And, as a bluestocking spinster myself, I found it both hilarious and touching to witness the soulless, strong-minded, practical Alexia fall in love.
Changeless by Gail Carriger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Here’s a quandary—I think that Changeless is more competently written than Soulless, yet I didn’t enjoy it as much. Maybe it’s because at this point, Gail Carriger is not writing a one-off romantic romp, but Book Two of a continuing steampunk/fantasy series. There are still plenty of comical moments and silly characters, but the overall tone is less tongue-in-cheek.
This raises two problems. First, because I was asked to take the story more seriously, I found it harder to suspend my disbelief at times (e.g., how has Alexia managed to keep the general public unaware of her preternatural abilities?). Second, the comic-relief elements started to get on my nerves. We are told that Ivy Hisselpenny is Alexia’s only female friend, but it isn’t a very positive depiction of friendship. Alexia secretly rolls her eyes at Ivy’s ditziness, histrionics, and terrible taste in hats; Ivy outright accuses Alexia of marrying for money and status, not for love. (The camaraderie found in Carriger’s Finishing School books feels like a conscious attempt to write a better version of the Alexia–Ivy friendship. That series also has a serious-minded heroine (Sophronia) with a bubbly BFF (Dimity), but those girls genuinely care about one another.)
The introduction of Genevieve Lefoux, a cross-dressing inventor who equips Alexia with a battle-ready parasol, means that Changeless is heavier on the steampunk gadgets than Soulless was. Because I’d read the prequel Finishing School books first, in which Genevieve is a ten-year-old scamp, it was a bit disconcerting for me to see her all grown up into an elegant, mysterious lesbian who makes Alexia reconsider her own sexuality. (I pictured Genevieve as looking like Isabella Rossellini.) I mean, I like both iterations of the character—but I had a hard time reconciling them in my head.
To its credit, Changeless is more wide-ranging and less repetitious than Soulless. Well, except for the narrator’s constant innuendos about how much Alexia and her husband enjoy having sex. I thought this was pretty gratuitous, though the events of the last few pages made me reconsider. Maybe this is actually an intentional portrait of a couple who use their healthy sex life and teasing banter to paper over deeper problems in the relationship—problems that seem like they’ll come to a head in the next book.
Blameless by Gail Carriger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
After a disappointing second installment, the Parasol Protectorate series is back on track with the irreproachable Blameless. In it, we get to spend a lot of time with some of the series’ most talented and intriguing characters: Floote, the manservant who knows more than he lets on; Madame Lefoux, the cross-dressing scientist with a network of mysterious contacts; and Professor Lyall, Conall’s unflappable but long-suffering second-in-command. (This probably isn’t a surprise to those who know me in real life, but I suppose I prefer quiet, competent Beta males to roaring, hot-tempered Alphas.) Even better, Ivy Hisselpenny, who was such an annoying bubble-head in Book Two, has been re-characterized as a woman who feigns empty-headedness in order to disarm people. She even manages to find out some information that helps move the plot forward!
Perhaps most importantly, we get a lot of background on the history and science of “supernaturals” and “preternaturals,” but it doesn’t feel like info-dumping, because Alexia has a real personal stake in the matter. She needs to find out everything she can because it seems to be the only way to clear her name and win back her husband’s trust. (Maybe that was the real problem with Changeless: Alexia was kind of along for the ride in that book, but lacked a sense of purpose.)
For a more lighthearted bit of worldbuilding, there’s the hilarious idea that pesto was invented by the fanatical Italian Templars as protection against supernatural creatures. Oh dear: pesto is my comfort food, so I guess I won’t be seeking transformation into a vampire or werewolf any time soon. Then again, according to the rules of Carriger’s world, I’d be unwise to seek out supernatural transformation anyway, because women are less likely to survive it. And that’s one of the things that intrigues me the most about this series: it was written by a woman and displays an obvious love for smart, strong female characters who flout society’s rules, and yet, the books tell us over and over that women are less likely to be “soulful” than men are. The feminist in me kind of chafes at this, so I look forward to seeing how (and whether) Carriger writes herself out of this corner.