BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The continuing adventures of Alexia Maccon, Victorian woman of science.
PROS: Adventurous, charming, and funny, with a great cast of supporting characters.
CONS: The pace occasionally flags.
BOTTOM LINE: Strong continuation to a wonderful series.
Changeless and Blameless constitute books two and three in The Parasol Protectorate series. I reviewed the first novel, Soulless, earlier this year. In that book author Gail Carriger introduced us to her alt-history-steampunk-paranormal-romance universe: In Victorian London, werewolves, vampires and ghosts form an important part of the social order. They sit on a council that advises the queen on matters supernatural. Werewolves form a special part of the armed forces and vampires act in various capacities including intelligence gathering. In this world, Alexia Maccon neé Tarabotti, the Lady Woolsey, is an oddity in many ways. She is a woman who prefers science to society. She is married to a werewolf (Conall Maccon, Lord Woolsey). Most importantly, she is preternatural, or soulless–she counters the powers of any supernatural being she touches.
Carriger has developed a well-thought out and consistent alt-cosmology for her universe. A soul is something that one has in greater or lesser amounts. Those of great soul, who tend to be highly creative, have the potential to survive death–either to become a ghost (and thus tied to the location of their body), or a werewolf or vampire (when assisted by a senior member of the appropriate species). This has a cost–vampires (mostly) live in hives controlled by a single queen, and werewolves live in packs with dominant alpha males (such as Lord Woolsey). But the soulless are the rarest of all–scientifically inclined, they are the bane of the supernatural. The condition runs strongly in families, and in these two books we learn quite a bit more about their peculiarities and history.
In addition to the supernaturals running around, there are the steampunk trappings. In keeping with the conceit of Victorian-era science, aether is a real substance and forms the basis of a number of innovations. Zeppelins use aetheric currents for navigation, and in Changeless we learn about aetheric transmissions, similar to early radio. Plus there are glassicals (a sort of wearable set of glasses that provide magnification amongst other things) and parasols loaded with a James Bond-level of armaments for use against all manner of supernatural threats.
Which brings us back to Alexia and her adventures. At the start of Changeless we learn that for a certain period of time, none of the werewolves in London could change shape, none of the vampires were able to extrude fangs, and all the ghosts in the region were exorcised. It was as if all of them had been affected by a preternatural all at once. Everyone’s thoughts immediately turn to Alexia, who of course has no idea what’s going on. Conall receives information that sends him running (literally) to his old home, and old pack, in Scotland. Alexia, accompanied by a cast of characters, follows via zeppelin. The zeppelin ride itself is not without adventure, and things come to a head when she gets to Scotland. Eventually the mystery is solved, but at the end of the book she finds herself estranged from her husband and headed back to London confused and hurt.
Thus does Blameless begin, with Alexia at home with her family of which she is none too fond. The society papers quickly learn of the scandal affecting the Woolsey marriage and she is hounded even further. Alexia, being who she is, takes stock of her resources and determines that action is better than inaction. She again gathers up some choice traveling companions and this time heads to Italy, the homeland of her adventurous father. She has adventures along the way in France and at the border, with mysterious forces conspiring both for her and against her. Eventually she finds her way to the bastion of the Knights Templar in Italy. Back in London Lord Woolsey has his own heartache and headaches to deal with as it appears that greater conspiracies are afoot that will affect the balance of power in Queen Victoria’s government.
Carriger has two more books planned for the series and from the looks of it, plenty of plot with which to fill them. In these two books I particularly appreciate the changes of scenery and the expanded cast of characters. The different history and power dynamics of mainland Europe speaks to a significant amount of background world building that deepens the story universe but never slows it down. (For instance, on the continent supernatural beings are still considered abominations to be killed on sight, not integrated into society as in England.) And the supporting characters! They are a delight. From Alexia’s ditzy friend Ivy and her melodramatic ill-starred romance with claviger (werewolf-in-training) Tunstell, to her catty sister Felicity, to the inventor Madame Lefoux, to Professor Lyall, Lord Woolsey’s long-suffering Beta, to Floote, the unflappable valet of Alexia’s deceased father. Lord Akeldama, a highlight of the first novel, makes helpful appearances here and there, and we also get a rather touching scene involving him and his main boy-toy (also a vampire-in-training) Biffy.
Now, amongst the sub-genres I called out to describe these books, steampunk featured prominently. They certainly have all the trappings. But really, this must be the least punk steampunk ever. I won’t claim to be an aficionado–my main touchstones are Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the recent Hugo-nominee, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. But in those two works there are significant subversive elements. Priest’s alt-history has a lot to do with the break down of society in post-zombification Seattle and the underclass, crazies, and warlords that conspire to live there. LXG injects a certain amount of subversive politics into the classic adventure hero tales of the 19th century. But the Parasol Protectorate must be the most mannered steampunk you are likely to find. Consider this excerpt from the beginning of Blameless:
Mrs. Loontwill [Alexia’s mother] cast said hands heavenward and sagged back into her chair in a partial faint.
“Oh, no, you don’t, Papa.” An edge of steel entered [sister] Felicity’s tone.”Forgive me for being autocratic, but you must understand Alexia’s continued presence under our roof is entirely untenable. Such a scandal as this will substantially hinder our chances of matrimony, even without her actual attendance. You must send her away immediately and forbid her further contact with the family. I recommend we quit London immediately. Perhaps for a European tour?”
[Other sister] Evylin clapped her hands, and Alexia was left wondering how much planning Felicity had put into the little betrayal. She looked hard into her sister’s unexpectedly pitiless face. Deceitful little plonker! I should have hit her with something harder than kippers.
…Her anger once again died, buckling under the ache of a werewolf-sized hole. Attempting to fill up the void with something, she helped herself to a dollop of marmalade and, because she had nothing left to lose, ate it directly off the spoon.
At that, Mrs. Loontwill actually did faint.
No undermining the social order here, not even when Queen Victoria sends round a note to the effect that Alexia will no longer be welcome on her advisory council. Although there is this note from the rogue vampire, Lord Akeldama:
“My darling Chamomile Button!” he wrote. “I received your card, and given certain recent intelligence, it has occurred to me that you may be in ever-increasing need of accommodation but were far too polite to request it openly. Let me tender my most humble offer, to the only person in all of England currently thought more outrageous than myself. You would be welcome to share my unworthy domicile and hospitality, such as they are. Yours, et cetera, Lord Akeldama.”
So there is a subversive element in the casting: Lord Akeldama is not only a rogue vampire, he is also flamboyantly gay. Hat-shop owner Madame Lefoux is both lesbian, cross-dressing, and an inventor of great skill. And Alexia herself is a woman more of the sciences than of romance (although there is quite a bit of romance in her life–often more than she wants). Is that enough to put the “punk” in this “steampunk” adventure-comedy-of-manners? I don’t know, but it works for me.
As you can see, I enjoy these books immensely. They are funny, charming, and fast-paced. My only complaints are minor and few: I thought that Changeless dragged a bit in the middle, especially for a while on the zeppelin and upon first arriving in Scotland. Occasionally the rhythm of the witty dialog becomes a bit repetitive instead of lively. And while it may be an accurate portrayal of Victorian ignorance of lesbianism, Alexia’s complete cluelessness when it comes to Madame Lefoux’s motivations is a bit wearing on the modern reader. Still, I’ve enjoyed all three of these books and I’m looking forward to the concluding two. I suspect that we’ll continue to get great adventures, memorable characters, and lots of fun.