Victorian Deliciousnesses With a Dash of Steampunk: The Parasol Protectorate Series by Gail CarrigerGail Carriger's latest novel in the Parasol Protectorate series was due out this week (Heartless), I decided to make a point of reading all her books in the month of June to gear up for the release. I had a feeling these books were going to jibe with my recent steampunk foray and I was right.
But I ended up getting so...much...more.
I'll confess it took me a good 60 pages to get into the first book, Soulless, not because the world was so hard to understand, but because there is a distinctive rhythm to the main character's thoughts and it is her voice which predominates.
Alexia Tarabotti is a fine young Englishwoman, genteel and proper. Unfortunately, her intelligence and her appearance (a darker complexion inherited from an Italian father combined with an, ahem, ample figure) render her decidedly unfashionable. In a steampunk world in which mechanicals abound, Alexia's England also has a unique feature - the acceptance of supernaturals. Vampires and werewolves (ghosts abound as well, but they are really second class citizens) are in the upper echelons of society, with carefully drawn lines around their respective boundaries according to etiquette of the time. The individuals who become vampires and werewolves - who survive the death to become immortal - have an excess of soul and therefore have enough soul lingering after their death to inhabit their new immortal bodies. Alexia herself is the ultra-rare preternatural, or a person born without a soul. This makes her especially dangerous in the eyes of supernaturals bent on showing their power as her very touch makes them mortal and vulnerable to killing.
Alexia's curiosity, combined with an unfortunate and unprecedented vampire attack at a party, throws her in the path of Lord Conall Maccon, the Earl of Woolsey, a major player in Queen Victoria's government (the supernatural investigative kind) and the Alpha male of the Woolsey pack of werewolves. They are both attracted and slightly baffled by one another, but as their case progresses, they not only uncover a conspiracy of scientists, but realize their love for one another.
Changeless, is one that caused a tremendous brohaha upon publication (it has one hell of a cliffhanger and I would have been LIVID if I had read it when it first came out). Alexia is married to Lord Maccon and trying to find her feet in her marriage and newfound position amidst her love match. During all this, a large part of London is affected by a baffling mystery - the supernatural creatures in it cannot go about their usual business because they have become mortal (and the ghosts have all been oddly exorcised). It's as if Alexia's preternatural power is everywhere, but she has nothing to do with it. When her husband has to head north to Scotland to investigate a similar situation with his former pack (who he left under difficult circumstances), Alexia hops the nearest dirigible and follows him to help. Several murder attempts later, she does end up solving the mystery, but is given a major blow with some news that impacts her marriage to Lord Maccon. Hence the sucky cliffhanger.
Blameless (The Parasol Protectorate) picks up right where Changeless left off, with Alexia's marriage in the scandal sheets. She becomes the target of even more murder attempts than usual, which prompts her to surround herself with friends and flee to Italy where she thinks she will find the answers she needs (or at least good food). She does find answers, but also a seriously demented version of the Knights Templar who consider her, as someone born without a soul, to be an abomination, but one they are willing to exploit to their purposes in order to harness her power. The revelation that her father also had dealings with the Templars puts her a little closer to unraveling the mystery surrounding him, but only so far. As Lord Maccon comes to his senses and follows her to Europe, Alexia's pragmatism and fashion sense help her see what is really going on, even if she can't necessarily fix it.
Heartless, Alexia is still being hunted by vampires, visited by demented ghosts, and having to decorate a new London townhouse to survive the occasional werewolf change, all while eight months pregnant. So vexing. She is so distracted by having to eat and empty her bladder all the time that it's a challenge to figure out what the cryptic messages mean about the "queen" and "danger". Add to this some disturbing behavior by a good friend and Alexia has to solve the mystery, pregnancy or no pregnancy.
The fun in the parasol protectorate series is the rompy, witty style of the writing. It's true that Carriger occasionally gets a little bogged down in the Victorian detail, and there is the scene or plot point that could have been rendered shorter (we can say that for almost every author out there, were we honest about it), but for steampunk enthusiasts, this is a super fun series worthy of consideration. Alexia's character and that of her husband's are well-drawn and lovable (if occasionally frustrating in their pig-headedness). I love several of the minor characters, particularly the fabulous and independent vampire, Lord Akeldama, as well as the scientist/milliner Madame Lefoux. It's a fascinating feature of steampunk that gay characters not only abound, but are accepted in the alternate steampunk universe without too much startled eyelash batting. I haven't decided if it's an author connection linking modernity in machines to sexual tolerance or if, in this case, if you acknowledge vampires and werewolves and what they do in the privacy of their homes, who really cares about the gay issue? It's a shame we can't take that philosophy to Washington to forward the cause of the gay movement. I bet the religious right would have a much bigger problem with vampires. MUCH bigger problem.
Author Gail Carriger (who has an extremely witty blog as part of her author website) is the pen name of Tofa Borregaard, an archeologist/anthropologist (which explains all that attention to cultural detail). Her website has TONS of interview questions that she answers in a thorough and funny manner, so any detail about her writing would be more than answered using the resources on her website. Readers new to the steampunk genre will find Carriger's introduction to be a good one (and her novels are excellent crossover books for librarians interested in hooking the romance or historical fiction reader into something a little more fantasy). I was especially appreciative of her outstanding costuming resources listed - be prepared to spend a good hour noodling around these sites and thinking of your next Halloween costume!
It's safe to say that in the many steampunk books I've read, humor - really fun, playful humor - is in short supply. Thankfully we have Gail Carriger to help us see that steampunk is not just an interesting, sexy mashup genre for the intellectual fantasy/historical fiction reader, but downright funny as well.