I can’t remember exactly how it was I stumbled across the first in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series. It was most likely a title dropped in passing by Veronica Belmont on the Sword and Laser podcast, coupled with the book then appearing on a Goodreads list of the best steampunk books. So I guess I take that first sentence back. Apparently, I remember exactly how I first heard of the book. Let’s move on, shall we? Anyway, it was a book well worth stumbling onto, and since finishing it, I’ve become a huge fan of the series and its author. The blend of supernatural shenanigans, romance, adventure, steampunk, and dandy vampires all wrapped up in a Victorian comedy of manners style tale was exactly the sort of breezy — but not unsubstantial — book for which I’d been hoping. Needless to say but here I am about to say it anyway, I was pretty excited to move on to the second book.
There was, however, just a little bit of trepidation. It wasn’t so long ago that I’d been enthralled with the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, only to see it collapse into a horrible pile of the some of the worst books I’ve ever read, so much so that, at book six, I simply couldn’t bear it anymore and gave up on the series. And mere days before beginning Changeless, the second book in The Parasol Protectorate series, I finished George RR Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, the latest book in his Song of Ice and Fire series, and found it shockingly terrible as well, after finding the first three books wonderful and the fourth, well, pointless but not hopeless. So I was having pretty bad luck with my series. Was I going to plunge into another one only to have the carpet yanked out from beneath me? Ah well, you never learn anything by not finding out.
I was pleased to discover my fears were pointless. Changeless deftly carries on at the same highly enjoyable level as Soulless, and is in some ways an improvement over the first novel — chiefly in the way it expands on one of my favorite characters, Professor Lyall, and adds a new favorite in eccentric cross-dressing French inventor Madame Lefoux. Picking up shortly after the end of Soulless, the second book finds capable heroine Alexia Tarabotti now Lady Alexia Maccon, newly wed to Lord Connal Maccon, who just happens to also be a werewolf and the chief investigator of supernatural crimes and mysteries in a Victorian England where “the supernatural set” — dominated as always by werewolves and vampires, with the occasional ghost — has been integrated into regular society. For her part, Alexia is a preternatural — a soulless — whose touch can render a supernatural mortal for the duration of the contact. She’s also newly appointed to the Queen’s Shadow Council for governing supernatural affairs in the British Empire. In other words, it’s been a busy couple of weeks for Alexia.
And things are only going to get more complicated. Because all of a sudden, there seem to be fluid pockets of space floating around London that are negating the powers of supernaturals. Alexia is tasked with figuring out just what the heck is going on and how it might all relate to a brigade of werewolf soldiers who have just returned from Egypt. Along the way, she encounters a flirtatious French inventor named Madame Lefoux, who may or may not be a spy, either for the last book’s shadowy scientific society Order of the Brass Octopus or for some rather antagonistic vampires — maybe even both. And in the middle of all this, her husband up and vanishes, returned home to Scotland to deal with some shady bit of family pack business that also involves the returning werewolf brigade and the reason Connal Maccon abandoned his original pack to eventually take control of a pack in London. And then there’s the problem with Ivy Hisslepenny’s continuing abhorrent taste in hats.
Although casually lumped into the steampunk genre by many people, Carriger’s stories don’t really fall perfectly into that genre. Certainly they have aspects of steampunk — the Victorian setting with a twist, the appearance of an airship, the odd brass and clockwork technologies — but it’s as much that as it is in the same genre as an Austen novel or supernatural romance. There’s a certain playful cheeriness (or is it a cheery playfulness) that makes Changeless and the other books in the series something other than “another steampunk novel.” Although Carriger’s world is believable and well fleshed out, she doesn’t have the preoccupation with gadgetry and steampunk tech that many other authors have. And depsite the illustration on the cover of my copy of Changeless, there’s a decided lak of steampunk’s beloved goggles in the writing of Ms. Carriger. Instead, she has a meticulous attention to classic Victorian detail (including my own personal crusade — convincing steampunks that the Victorians had heard of colors besides brown, white, and black) and fashion, but even more importantly, her stories are about her characters.
As I said when I reviewed Soulless, Alexia is a fantastic heroine: competent, smart, witty, confrontational, but never so much so that she seems superhuman, as can sometimes be the case with lead characters. As good as she is at what she does, she’s often also confused, at a loss, and prone to making the occasional bad call. Her character type is nothing particularly unusual in and of itself, but Carriger dials back the “I can and will accomplish everything” to create a woman who is much more believable and likable as a result (by contrast, as much as I love Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries, the main character is always so utterly sure and confident in her abilities and beliefs that she sometimes strikes me as a bit…smug).
With her husband gone for much of Changeless‘ duration, Alexia finds herself surrounded with a different cast of characters to help her in her quest — the makings of the eventual Parasol Protectorate, as it were. Floote, the former family butler now turned Woosley Pack librarian, hints that there may be even more to him than initially hinted at (and we already know he must have had an interesting secret past when he was with Alexia’s rakehell of a father). Also joining Alexia as she travels by land and airship to Scotland is her new maid, Angelique, formerly a drone for London’s most powerful vampire queen. And finally, there is Madame Lefoux, who I absolutely adore.
I also liked the more complex and somewhat comedic expansion on Lord Maccon we get — not just the look into his history in Scotland but also the revelation that the “gentleman werewolf” is held together almost entirely by his pack beta and frequent sidekick, Professor Lyall. In the moments in which Connal is left to his own devices, his polished veneer quickly gives way to crazy man hair and poorly tied cravats. Similarly, the greater insight we get into Professor Lyall himself makes him one of the more interesting characters in the series. Carriger has a great supporting cast for her principles, and what’s better, she seems to know exactly how much to use them so that we are interested but none of them overstay their welcome. Only Alexia’s harpy sisters grate on the nerves — and unfortunately, one of them accompanies Alexia to Scotland — but the entire point of the sisters (and her mother) is to grate on the nerves. And Carriger applies them with skill. We also get a return visit from my personal favorite, foppish vampire gossip Lord Akeldama and his army of surprisingly competent dandies. Like everyone else, Akeldama is applied in exactly the right amounts, getting you interested in his story without being over-exposed.
I really enjoyed Changeless, and I continue to be so happy that I discovered this series. Carriger has created a cast of characters in which I am overjoyed to invest my interest, and placed them in a setting that is well fleshed out and entirely believable. Where Soulless was a romance with a mystery in it, Changeless is much more a mystery with some romance. There are a lot of tussles in bustles, and the latter portion of the book is dedicated almost entirely to Alexia and Madame Lefoux unraveling the mystery of why these bubbles of changelessness are occurring. I really enjoy the romantic aspects of the books — Carriger doesn’t play it entirely coy with the lustier aspects of her characters’ lives — but I’m also just as happy to see her taking a more Agatha Christie direction in this entry in the series. And given the cliffhanger ending and where it leaves Alexia and Lord Maccon, I suspect the third book in the series, Blameless, will also concentrate more on adventure and mystery than romance. Whatever the future holds, Changeless was a tremendous amount of fun, andI love spending time in this world and with these people. ]]>