There’s always a degree of trepidation in facing the second book of a series when you’ve greatly enjoyed the first one, because as a reader I’m always aware of the possibility for disappointment. This second installment in the Parasol Protectorate series is just as good as the first, even though at times it seems to lose momentum. Probably the need to broaden and deepen the background in which the characters move is the reason behind this perceived slowness: despite this small… disturbance, Gail Carriger confirms her skills as a writer and has me now firmly among her admirers.
When we left Alexia Tarabotti – now Lady Maccon – at the end of Soulless, she had newly married the werewolf Earl of Woolsey, and luckily for us a few months of marital bliss have not changed her quirky disposition or her sharp wit. One of the reasons I enjoy Alexia’s character so much is that she is the perfect representation of a woman of her times, as far as behavior and adherence to social conventions are concerned, yet she also possesses an uncanny ability for sideways thinking and brilliant deduction, combined with a keen intellect she does not feel compelled to hide.
Urban Fantasy and Steampunk, the two genres this series loosely belongs to (and I say “loosely” because I believe Ms. Carriger created a unique genre here), tend to present the readers with a stereotyped heroine who is indeed bold, independent and snappy, but also aggressive (sometimes unnecessarily so) and prone to foolishly unthinking behavior, the kind that would land ordinary people in a grave, while these characters manage to survive in miraculous ways that are a severe test for suspension of disbelief.
Alexia Maccon does not fall into this trap: her detachment – ascribed to being a preternatural, i.e. without a soul – allows her to keep her cool in every situation, and also to examine her own behavior, to which she applies the same dispassionate eye as she does with other people’s. Far from rendering her cold and clinical, this side of Alexia’s personality is the source of many amusing considerations, delivered in the peculiar voice the author created for her. Take for example the relationship with her husband, an Alpha werewolf and the head of B.U.R. – the Bureau of Unnatural Registry that keeps track of the werewolf, vampire and ghost population of England: there is no doubt about the love and affection between the two of them, yet it’s expressed with a good deal of banter rather than mushiness. The couple stands on an equal basis, and Alexia has not given up her uniqueness to subsume herself in her husband’s personality. Certainly not when she entertains thoughts like this one:
“He paced about Alexia slowly in a circle as though examining her for flaws. It felt very doglike to Alexia. She was prepared to jump back if he cocked a leg.”
In this new book, the supernatural creatures of England are facing an unusual situation: something, or someone, is nullifying their abilities, turning them into normal humans, and it seems to sweep across the country, affecting every creature that crosses its path. Following Conall Maccon to Scotland, his country of origin, in an attempt to solve the mystery, Alexia gains an improbable retinue composed by her friend Ivy (the wielder of improbable and awful hats), her sister Felicity (odiously amusing in her snobbish contempt), the enigmatic Madame Lefoux (an expert of all things mechanical and further source of scandal because of a penchant for masculine attire), and Tunstell, Lord Maccon’s valet and claviger (i.e. werewolf-in-training). The socially unacceptable attraction between Ivy and Tunstell, coupled with Felicity’s spiteful meddling offers the comical highlights in this search for clues, while Alexia faces complicated puzzles and dangers (almost falling from a dirigible and barely escaping poisoned food) armed with her state-of-the-art parasol, a contraption that could give points to Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver…
Other characters from the previous book make an appearance, like Lord Akeldama, the ancient, eccentric vampire who has befriended Alexia, or Professor Lyall, Lord Maccon’s Beta and an interesting figure that I hope will get more space in the next books: to my disappointment these are just cameo roles, though, because most of the action takes place in Scotland where Conall’s former pack is facing a crisis of their own.
The solution of the mystery is an interesting one, and it remains open-ended, so that the situation might present itself, in some other form, in the future. Yet the book closes on a negative, worrisome note: I am not going to offer any spoiler, as I always try to do with my reviews, but I’d like to state that while I had long suspected the nature of one of the final revelations, I was surprised by the reaction of a particular character, even though the reasons for it are quite logical – at least from his point of view.
Alexia herself is placed in an odd situation, and what’s stranger still, she seems to react in a passive way that’s as far from her psychological make-up as possible, so I’m beyond curious to see where this new development will take her. The huge cliff-hanger at the end of this book is bound to have me break my own rule about putting some space between books in a series to avoid the danger of overload: in this case I cannot wait, not too long.
That’s how good and involving this story is…
My Rating: 7,5/10