Books 1, 2 and 3, The Parasol Protectorate
Reviewed by Tehani Wessely
I was first exposed to what’s become known as The Parasol Protectorate series (the books are subtitled as being “Alexia Tarabotti novels”) a number of months ago, via a great video showing the creation of the cover of Blameless. This did the rounds on the ‘net showing how cover design comes together in a very cool way. I watched it a few times, thinking how clever it was, but that the book itself didn’t look like my sort of thing. HOW WRONG I WAS! When Tansy and Alex started raving about the books, I knew I had to try them. Then I received a review copy of Blameless and that decided it – Soulless and Changeless became my only Aussiecon 4 prescribed purchases, and when I finally got the chance to read them, it was to the exclusion of all else.
I’m not really sure what I thought these books were about, when I first saw them appearing in bookstores and via the cover design video (which I now recognise as some very smart marketing!). I guarantee I did not realise they were funny, smart, paranormal fantasy set in an almost real historical world, populated by suave and sinister vampires, tough and militant werewolves and a society that has built itself around its supernatural inhabitants. Did I mention funny?
Alexia Tarabotti is a 25 year old spinster in Victorian England. She is intelligent, articulate, tall, well-built, curious, swarthy-skinned and forthright – everything a Victorian young lady should NOT be. In addition, she is soulless, a preternatural condition that means she only has to touch one of her supernatural cousins (the vampires and werewolves who inhabit society side-by-side with regular humans) to have them lose their immortality while she maintains physical contact. Lord Conall Maccon is the head of BUR (a bureaucratic body that controls and maintains records on the rather small supernatural set), the werewolf Alpha, and a large and blustery Scotsman who finds himself drawn to Alexia when their paths cross after Alexia accidentally kills a vampire with her parasol.
Soulless introduces us to Carriger’s delightful cast of characters. From the exquisitely outrageous vampire rove, Lord Akeldama, to Alexia’s loopy friend Ivy, the werewolf Beta Professor Lyall, and Alexia’s brainless half-sisters, Carriger brings the players to life with affection. They weasel their way into the reader’s affections, ensuring you just have to know where they go next. The plot is classic historical fantasy – non-conforming young woman meets unsuitable older man, and while the attraction is instant, both fight it, trading snark and bemoaning the fact that each finds the other puzzlingly enthralling. I think this is part of the appeal for me, as I had a (rather long) affair with historical romance in my teens and early 20s. But there’s so much more to it.
Carriger has created a realistic world based on historical fact and occasionally peopled with real historical characters – Queen Victoria is very well used and presented. But within this world, she has given us the current flavour of the month in vampires and werewolves (with a side helping of ghosts), but in a much more subtle and interesting way than I’ve come across it in the genre to date. And I think that’s what separates Carriger’s story from the run of the mill paranormal romance or urban fantasy. She hasn’t simply thrown a hidden underground of immortal or all-powerful supernaturals at us – instead, she has built her world around the existence of the paranormal, permitting them power, but ensuring that the allure of becoming one of them is tempered by real danger, enough that everyday people undertake a true consideration of the possible costs involved in making that leap.
And the stories are engaging and highly entertaining. Honestly, this should go without saying, but very often, particularly in series books, authors get tied up in their characters without really offering much by way of plot progression, which can leave the reader feeling quite unsatisfied. Not so for The Parasol Protectorate books: each is fairly self-contained, and while I’m very glad I waited to read books one and two first, I think I could have read Blameless on its own without feeling slighted.
WARNING: I’m now going to talk about the plot of Changeless andBlameless, so if I’ve already convinced you to go read the books, and you care about spoilers, READ NO FURTHER!
Now happily (if noisily and argumentatively) married, Alexia is learning to be both Lady Maccon – married to England’s most alpha werewolf Alpha – and the Queen’s muhjah, the preternatural third on the Shadow Council. When her home is invaded by the return of the regiments, which werewolves a core part of, there is a sudden onslaught of mortality among supernaturals, and then her husband disappears to Scotland, Alexia is most put out. She decides to investigate the plague of humanity that descended on London, and by happy chance, the search leads her to follow her wayward husband to the Highlands, accompanied, among others, by her new acquaintance, the highly unusual lady inventor Madame Lefoux, inherited French maid, Angelique, and – to Alexia’s dismay – her friend, the flighty Ivy, and Alexia’s half-sister Felicity.
However, the journey to Scotland is littered with assassination attempts and drama, including Alexia’s own disgust with herself at being a poor aerial traveller, a bout of hanging from the side of a dirigible, and a poisoning attempt. Who could want her dead, and why? And what will Alexia find when she arrives at her husband’s former home?
I like that the resolution at the end of Changeless is both complete but permits itself to be built on. Carriger has built a clever structure for her story, and in three books, I’ve yet to feel that point where you think, “Oh, the author really hadn’t considered what she might have to do if the series continues…”, which is so frequent in the paranormal genre. I don’t know how many books were originally planned or are now in the works, but I commend the author on maintaining her world-building integrity.
Having said the story is completed in book two, that of course is misleading, because we are left on a real cliffhanger in terms of the relationship between Alexia and Conall. I can only imagine how frustrating this must have been for the reader who had to wait some months until Blameless was released, but from the perspective of someone who got to simply open the next book immediately, I think it was a very good move. After all, when finishing Changeless, I could think of nothing else but to move onto the next book – there was no consideration of dropping something else in between!
WARNING: more spoilers!
Cast out by her husband due to her impossible pregnancy, Alexia is at a loss in the beginning of Blameless. She is devastated by her husband’s reaction, and ambivalent about the pregnancy itself. On top of this, she is suddenly a social pariah, ostracised by all but her very closest friends and removed from her position on the Shadow Council by the Queen. Distressed, Alexia turns to Lord Akeldama for help, who offers it unconditionally, but then disappears without warning.
Now even more disquieted, Alexia finally turns to Professor Lyall and Madame Lefoux, who willingly support her quest to find out more about this unnatural state of affairs. Accompanied by the unflappable butler cum private secretary, Floote, Alexia and Madame Lefoux journey to Italy, finding themselves pursued at all turns by nefarious supernaturals bent on ending Alexia’s life, and even the Templars, whom Alexia seeks information from, are a danger.
Meanwhile, back in England, Professor Lyall struggles to maintain the supernatural equilibrium with his Alpha bent on self-destruction. While Lord Maccon continues to act the imbecile, BUR matters, combined with concern over Alexia and the difficulties of running the pack contrive to cause more and more problems for the werewolf Beta, who struggles to maintain the status quo.
This book had a much greater focus on the secondary characters and it was an absolute pleasure to have their characters fleshed out in such a way. Professor Lyall, Ivy, Madame Lefoux and Floote really get some screen time, or at the least, have previously unknown aspects of their backstory or personality exposed to great effect. In addition, some new characters come to light, all equally fascinating and meaningful to the story – no easy achievement for any author. I was particularly impressed by the evolution of the minor characters into a more central role, and think this bodes well for the continuation of the series.
Book three definitely takes The Parasol Protectorate from paranormal historical romance to somewhere far less genre constrained – it’s almost impossible to wholly typecast this series, except to say it contains elements from so many different genres, from Miss Marple-ish crime stories to paranormal to Harlequin Historical to steampunk! I became totally immersed in the story, fell in love with the characters, enjoyed the plot, to the exclusion of sleep, housework, and many other quite important daily household tasks. I’m now on a countdown to book four, Heartless, and will be anxious to hear of any other projects Carriger puts out!
This review was first published at ASif! on September 21, 2010.
ETA: I also briefly reviewed Heartless at Goodreads, saying: “A little more over the top silly than the previous three books, but still a brilliant read. I kind of anticipated the ending, but Carriger has created a wonderful world with characters I just adore. Awesome fun to read.”
And of the final instalment, Timeless, also at Goodreads, I said: “An unexpected and excellent end to the series. Carriger has done a splendid job of wrapping up the story. Enjoyed this every step of the way, with some wonderful laugh out loud moments.”