I believe that, back in the dim and ill-storied pre-history of this blog, I promised a forthcoming review of this very novel. My somewhat eccentric grasp of the word ‘forthcoming’ notwithstanding, here is that very review. Not before time, but why unduly rush a good thing?
Gail Carriger‘s first novel in her “Parasol Protectorate” series of Steampunk/Paranormal Romance/Historical tales concerns the adventures of Victorian spinster Alexia Tarabotti, the unfashionably free-thinking and vaguely tolerated eldest daughter of a well-to-do family who has secrets.
Preternatural, ‘I don’t actually have a soul’-type secrets. The sort that can really put a crimp in one’s social standing and must be kept under wraps at all costs. Putting aside the notion that the soul is kind of a nebulous, hard-to-grasp concept that you might not really believe in, making Alexia devoid of a soul does serve a neat, plot-friendly purpose in this novel, as it’s her most effective weapon against the other supernatural creatures walking openly through Carriger’s subtly be-Steampunked Victorian London.
You see, Vampires and Werewolves are out of the closet in this series and don’t skulk in the shadows as they would in other fantasy novels – they’re tolerated, if not entirely accepted, and quite the fashionable inclusion at society parties, albeit under certain strictures and with the eye of civil service-like organisations always on them.
Alexia’s path towards ignoble and anonymous spinsterdom is interrupted rudely by a vampire attack at a social occasion, a state of affairs made much worse by the unfortunate fact that the vampire in question is a rove (or unregistered) creature of the night. It’s just not the done thing to have a vampire roaming the streets of London who doesn’t belong to a hive and who isn’t under the strict command of a queen – so the question on Alexia’s lips (after she accidentally stakes the creature with her trusty parasol) is ‘where did he come from?’.
And that’s the jumping off point for the book – somebody in London is very interested in creating supernatural creatures and nobody – not annoyingly sexy Scottish Alpha Werewolf Conall Maccon, nor socially connected, camp-as-Christmas Vampire Lord Akeldama – knows what’s going on and the local Vampire Hive is acting as only Vampire societies in genre fiction can do (by being uptight, nose-in-the-air ancient elitists who want to handle their own murky business and don’t mind if that means that blameless folk die whilst they get to the bottom of things).
Stating upfront that I genuinely enjoyed the novel – I’ve got the next two books in the series in my bedside reading pile, all ready to go – I do have some minor reservations to address about the book.
A minor thing for me – the male characters are a little too archetypal at times. Lord Akeldama, Alexia’s vampire confidante, is the camp, fashion-fixated Creature of the Night who is equal parts Perez Hilton-esque, networking gossip monger and scheming supernatural king-maker and is accordingly politely ostracised by the society he finds himself in – too supernatural for the night-time world, not proper enough for the daytime establishment. If your Character Generator bingo card has Akeldama firmly in the ‘Fabulous, Fierce and Fanged’ category, be sure to tick it off now.
Maccon the werewolf is a rough-around-the-edges Scotsman whose habit for speaking his mind puts him on the outs with the genteel social circles which he finds himself moving in. He’s a sketch rather than a character, but he does become more likeable as the book draws on – and I enjoyed the way that Alexia’s preternatural talent (she can stop vampires in their tracks by touching them, likewise reversing lycanthropic effects in one so cursed by being in physical contact) prevented him from fulfilling the ‘lusty Celtic rogue’ template which he could otherwise have fallen into.
I had to keep reminding myself that a large aspect of the book is its treatment of romance and relationships in a time where no easy roadmap for such territory existed and perhaps my misgivings are drawn from the fact that I don’t usually read fiction where love and sex (or the confusions which arise thereafter) figure greatly.
One thing which irked me, which isn’t due to my gender or previous reading habits, is some of the language used by characters. A defensive fan might cite the fact that this novel has a sense of anachronism about it by virtue of having Steampunk elements in play and so some relaxation of concern for the speech patterns and idioms of the characters is fair.
Nice try, but no – as it were – cigar.
Even in this period of time, no British person of my acquaintance would use the word ‘figure’ in the context of discovering or mentally juggling with a complex issue. We don’t ‘figure things out’ – we work things out or solve a problem. It’s a minor point but it jumps out at a British reader, particularly as the world being drawn is so particular to our history and sense of ourselves. I know that Alexia is partly of Italian parentage but we’re never told that she’s had any particular contact with America, Americans or American vernacular so it just seems jarring to have her (and other characters) use linguistic forms which probably hadn’t been devised yet.
I know that this is nit-picking of the most mundane variety but it did distract me and it may do the same for you, too.
That minor issue done and dusted with, I have to say that I really enjoyed and recommend the book to you if you like your adventures fast-paced, romantic and witty. It’s a very well-paced and energetic novel which has to undertake some world-building initially but does so in a really fairly subtle, quick way which doesn’t burden the reader with retaining lots of information Which Will Become More Important Later On.
I’ve jumped into the next book in the series, “Changeless”, and in the 10 to 15 pages that I’ve read so far Ms Carriger has addressed some of the issues that I’ve had with the language and tone of the characters – it reads as the work of somebody who is more comfortable with her characters, with the idioms she’s choosing to work with and knows that she has a readership who is going to follow Alexia Tarrabotti’s adventures wherever they might lead.