I am very late to the Parasol Protectorate party, which Gail Carriger threw from approximately 2009-2012, and celebrated the publication of a 5-book steampunk/urban fantasy series. Now that I have finally read the series, it’s evident that the fanfare is deserved. Carriger has a voice that is unique of her contemporaries, and while I consider all of my very favorite historical romance/fantasy books to have some measure of wit and humor, these books are on another level. If Wodehouse decided to dabble in the territory of vampires, werewolves, ghosties, and Victorian romance, the result would basically be what Carriger has achieved here. The basic premise is that Alexia Tarabotti is a preternatural — meaning she has no soul — in London, England, where supernatural creatures are accepted in society and government as long as they adhere to a non-murderous code of behavior. The most common supernatural types are vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, and Alexia herself is something of a rarity.
Each book has a self-contained mystery and contributes to the overarching story. I’m linking to Goodreads for the plot summaries for each book, and am otherwise just going to jot down my own thoughts on each book both on its merits as a standalone and as a larger part of the series. I won’t go into detail on plot points, but be warned that descriptions from the later books will be necessity probably spoil points from the earlier books.
Soulless — 4 stars:
The first book in a series may have the easiest job. This is where the author gets to lay out her creative inspiration and focus as much on world- and character-building as the story. By virtue of it being a new world and new characters to the reader, the reader is likely to be more easily thrilled than when s/he is already used to the setting, requiring the author to do more heavy lifting in terms of keeping the story interesting and all of the details internally consistent.
That doesn’t take away from what Gail Carriger has accomplished here, though, which is a highly original and extraordinarily funny steampunk Victorian society. I read a lot of genre fiction — almost entirely genre fiction, in fact — and while it usually comes with its share of sardonic, irreverent, and snarky characters, I can think of few that are as hilariously droll as this series. Brimming with upper-crust subtle wit and dry commentary, Soulless fortunately lacks the style of self-seriousness that can weigh down otherwise promising urban fantasy.
Changeless — 3.5 stars:
The first book was more or less content to rest on the laurels of Alexia being a preternatural, and that’s that. Changeless starts to dig a bit more into the “science” behind preternatural-ism, continuing a theme from Soulless that takes the series out of pure fantasy and justifies the steampunk classification it’s often given. In particular, the introduction of future series regular Madame Lefoux, odd bird and lady scientist, cements the intention of the rest of the books to dutifully follow the Scientific Method in all investigations. Carriger invents rather creative and clever scientific theories and explanations for the supernatural and preternatural states, and the thread of scientific inquiry is one that is common among many of the lead characters, including Alexia herself, although some characters go to more extremes than others.
I was less engaged with Changeless than with Soulless or any of the books that followed it. Though typically Scots would be catnip, I just didn’t care that much about the Kingair pack, and I felt that the mystery behind the traveling Godbreaker Plague — a mysterious force-field that turns all supernaturals in the vicinity mortal — was somewhat bizarrely handled, in that Carriger gave away a lot of the game early on but left only the smallest detail to be discovered at the end. Finally, I felt rather betrayed by the cliffhanger ending. One of the main things I had been enjoying about the series was how the couple gets together in the first book, and then the rest appeared to promise the two together as a happily married couple. This is something you don’t see that much of in genre, and particularly not romance-adjacent genre, which tends to revel in the chase. The ending puts all of that into question, and while it’s not as if I didn’t believe the two would ever kiss and make up, I was disappointed that we’d be regressing backward in the relationship.
Blameless — 4 stars:
Due to the above, I was heading into Blameless with trepidation. I was hoping that the relationship drama would not form the bulk of the story, and, in fact, in this I was pleasantly surprised. On the one hand, the resolution came pretty easily, but on the other hand, it was rather in-character and also kind of more realistic? It was more or less exactly what couples do: have words, cool off, maybe get some input from others, consider the other person’s perspective, and realize they handled it less than ideally. The only thing that continued to bother me about this particular plot line was that the whole misunderstanding hinged on the idea that this thing that had happened was an “impossibility,” when in fact it was blatantly obvious why it was not impossible. It’s understandable that Alexia feels the need to prove the whys and hows, but even in the absence of hard evidence, the fact that ended up being the explanation was a complete duh from the very beginning. So while the diversion resolved itself satisfactorily, it was still — to me — a waste of time.
What made Blameless work, while all of that nonsense was afoot, was the increased development of some of the more peripheral characters. Professor Lyall gets a lot to do here, in between keeping the sulking Lord Maccon out of his cups, and trying to support Alexia’s mission from afar. This book also has our heroes traveling to the Continent, and “road trip” is generally a good place to start if you’re looking for a fresh angle in the series. In general, I’d say the plot of this one was overall pretty weak, but it was saved by the character interactions and the formidable humor.
Heartless — 4.5 stars:
At this point in the series, I kind of realized I didn’t actually care that much about the plot, which was a fascinating revelation unto myself, because usually plot is the #1 thing I care about in books and a good one can forgive all manner of other ills. Notably, starting with this book, I switched from e-reader to audiobook, and the narrator Emily Gray is so flippin’ perfect that she made me want to go back and re-listen to the first three books just so I could hear her tell them. The humor was increased tenfold with her delivery, and her skill with voices made up for deficits in my imagination that I didn’t even know were there when I formed my own loose impressions of the characters.
So, armed with the new character dimension provided by the audiobook, I simply settled in and allowed the characters to traipse all over London being their ridiculous selves. It was perfect. Also, cheers to Carriger for “octomaton.” A clever term for a worthy and perfectly steampunk fantasy invention.
Timeless — 3.5 stars:
I’m kind of torn on Timeless. On the one hand, based on the sentiments re: plot that I realized during Heartless, I enjoyed Timeless on a fundamental level the same way that I did with the prior books. On the other hand, the way that everything together in this book felt kind of rushed and haphazard in a way that wasn’t so obvious before. I know I said I wasn’t going to refer to spoilers, but I kind of can’t help it here, so, um, WARNING: SPOILERS!
Like, the Godbreaker Plague is actually just a bunch of preternatural mummies lying in the sand in the Egyptian desert? And the nefarious growth of said plague is just adding more mummies to it? Okay. Floote is the mastermind? Fine, I guess. Queen Matakara is also Hatshepsut, and the Plague is her brainchild? Sure. Conall, in mortal form, was shot twice with a regular pistol, once again with an elephant rifle, falls from ascending air transport, and still lives? Shrug. The vampires that disappeared in the first act were going to come back and be highly relevant in the third? Well, naturally. The Order of the Brass Octopus is just kind of there, existing, still, and that’s all? If you say so. Ivy is the new vampire queen? Whatev — actually, you know what, this is brilliant. Of course she is.
I do feel like this was the book where Carriger ran out of ideas. But, nonetheless — and again, hat tip to Emily Gray — I’ll be damned if I wasn’t sitting in traffic on my commute grinning madly at the quips and jabs that permeate every interaction. This series always did live and die on the strength of its characters.
All together, I have to say that the Parasol Protectorate series accomplishes exactly, I believe, what it was set out to do. Each of the books is a perfectly light and entertaining supernatural mystery buoyed by a superlative sense of humor and original worldbuilding. I’d highly recommend any of them as comfort reads, or as a palate cleanser after something more serious.