Friday, October 24, 2014

Reviews: Changeless and Blameless

It took me a long while to get back to Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, but I've spent most of the intervening time recommending her first book, 'Soulless', to anyone who will stand still long enough. That may have been why I waited so long--sometimes, when you know that there's a sequel out there to a book you really love, you're almost afraid to go on to the next one for fear it won't live up to expectations. Luckily, despite a bit of a shaky patch around the end of 'Changeless' and the beginning of 'Blameless', the sequels more than live up to the original.

The series, for those of you who didn't take my earlier recommendation to heart, revolves around an urban-fantasy steampunk version of Victorian Britain where vampires and werewolves are a vital part of the expansion of the British Empire and Queen Victoria has trusted supernatural advisors. The main character, Alexia Tarabotti, is exactly the opposite of a supernatural figure--she's a preternatural, a person whose touch negates the supernatural. Werewolves revert to human, vampires lose their fangs, and ghosts simply...well, give up the ghost. As such, she has both tremendous power and tremendous influence, as well as some pretty tremendous enemies.

The first book covered only the basics of Carriger's alternate Britain, but the second book ('Changeless') starts to really dig into the details as first London, then Scotland falls victim to a mysterious event that duplicates Alexia's preternatural touch over a far wider radius. This creates a mystery that Alexia and her husband (Lord Maccon, a Scottish werewolf who decamped Scotland to head a London pack) have to solve, especially as it involves Lord Maccon's former pack. The mystery isn't tremendously perplexing--when Lord Maccon mentions that there's weird things in Egypt that can rob a supernatural creature of its abilities, and the pack mentions that oh hey, we went artifact-shopping in Egypt, everyone in as well as out of the novel can put two and two together. Fortunately, that's not all that's going on.

For starters, there's the whole "former pack" issue. A big chunk of the novel is taken up with the strained relationships between Lord Maccon and his ex-kin, and Carriger does an excellent job of spinning out the secrets and mysteries there. A further set of secrets and mysteries involves a new character, eccentric and clearly lesbian inventor Madame LeFoux, who is just a little bit too much of a suspect in the multiple attempts on Alexia's life in this novel to allow the reader to indulge in any of the mental slashy goodness involving her and Alexia that the author oh so clearly hopes you will.

Well, not much of it, anyway.

Unfortunately, 'Changeless' ends on a cliffhanger that more or less involves Lord Maccon grabbing the Idiot Ball with both hands and clutching it firmly for the first third of the next book. I'm trying to avoid spoilers, here, but suffice to say that something that is blatantly obvious to the reader regarding the effects a preternatural might have on a supernatural is willfully ignored so that Lord Maccon can get into a big fight with Alexia. (This wouldn't be so frustrating if their wonderful, charming, flirtatious, sex-positive relationship wasn't otherwise a highlight of the series, by the way.) Nonetheless, it does happen, and the fight prompts the events of the next book ('Blameless') as Alexia is forced into exile in Italy.

Which means that it's time for some worldbuilding! 'Blameless' focuses heavily on the reaction that the rest of Europe has to Britain's alliance with bloodsucking fiends from beyond the grave and slavering hairy beasts who hunt the night when the moon is full. Unsurprisingly, not many see it as a plus, especially the Catholic Church and the Knights Templar. Surprisingly, most of the characters aren't any better disposed towards a woman who fits into their cosmology only as a soulless minion of Satan, a weapon fit to be used against the supernatural but never to be treated as a human being. There's a lot of good material here, as Alexia finds out details of her Italian father's backstory and deals with the machinations of the church. Oh, and finds out that pesto was designed as a weapon against the undead.

Just describing the A plot doesn't do the book justice, though; there's a lot of good material involving the supporting cast's efforts to unravel the plot against Alexia's life (from the previous book) and knock the Idiot Ball out of Lord Maccon's hand. The supporting cast was good in the first two books, but 'Blameless' is really where they come into their own.

Honestly, describing any of the plots doesn't do the books justice. The highlight here is Carriger's prose, which is light and fluffy and witty and airy and utterly gorgeous in an "Oh, so this is what it would be like if P.G. Wodehouse wrote urban fantasy" sort of way. The books absolutely breeze by effortlessly, and I definitely came away from this book looking forward to 'Heartless'...and wishing that the book titles weren't so similar that I keep having to look up which book has which title. But that's a complaint for another day.


David said...

Unfortunately, the Idiot Ball stuff you mentioned killed a lot of my enthusiasm for this series. I've read it through Blameless, and haven't felt motivated to go pick up the next two books yet. Which is a shame, because I liked a lot of things about it...

Dean said...

Man, I hated 'Soulless'. I kept hoping it would get better, and it didn't. I guess I prefer my urban fantasy grittier.