After the rather abrupt – and unexpected – ending of the previous book, I felt compelled to know how the story progressed, so I broke my own rule about pacing myself with series, and started immediately on volume three. And yes, the Parasol Protectorate is becoming something of an addiction for me…
The previous book, Changeless, ended with Conall Maccon’s rejection of the baby Alexia carries, on the premise that a supernatural is unable to conceive – ergo, the earl believed his wife had been unfaithful in a major way. This is the plot device the author picked to launch Alexia in a mad chase across Europe in search of evidence that could prove her stubborn and short-sighted husband wrong. What’s exceptional in this book (or rather the whole series) is the seamless blend of dramatic circumstances and humorous reactions that transform what could have been an angst-laden journey into an amusing caper that had me laughing out loud in many places.
Book 2, even though quite entertaining, was something of a letdown after the first installment: not because it was bad, far from it, but because it had seemed to lack part of the sparkle and wit that made Soulless such an amazing discovery. With Blameless, Gail Carriger returns to her previous brilliance and even surpasses herself, expanding not only on the main characters, but also on the secondary ones, some of which present the readers with pleasant surprises.
At the beginning, the estrangement with her husband throws Alexia into a brush with depression: the situation is not helped by her return to home and family because the Loontwills, far from proving sympathetic – which would have been surprising considering their overall attitude – end up driving her away when the “scandal” reaches the ears of the press. I love how Alexia feels the hurt of Conall’s rejection but deals with it in her usual no-nonsense manner, that in this case also acts as a barrier against despair. Carriger’s heroine is firmly rooted in her historical time and customs, and yet she exhibits a believably modern way of facing challenges: Alexia’s uniqueness and strength, as a character, come from this flawless balance. Her feelings for the unborn child are equally interesting: at first it’s labeled as “infant inconvenience” (a term that I found highly amusing and quite Alexia-like), but little by little her approach changes to grudging acceptance and finally to fierce protectiveness, even though the pact she formulates with the baby, reaching a sort of truce with the “tiny parasite” is way too funny for words. “Just you allow me to eat regularly, she told it silently, and I’ll think about trying to grow a mothering instinct.”
Fantasy heroines are often drawn as spirited and clever, always working outside of their culture’s boundaries – or against them: what Carriger managed with Alexia Tarabotti is to create a character who works inside those boundaries, who takes those boundaries and customs to heart, yet still manages to deal with every situation through a fresh and unexpected approach. The very contradiction between adhering to a conventional background while reacting in a totally unconventional manner is what makes this character so appealing.
Alexia in not alone in this, however, since Blameless shines the spotlight on several other characters from the previous books: Professor Lyall, Lord Maccon’s Beta and adviser, is a case in point. Due to his Alpha’s incapacitation (Conall Maccon spends quite some time being drunk over Alexia’s perceived unfaithfulness – and drunk on formaldehyde of all substances!) Lyall must handle both this situation and the larger problems that come with the running of BUR, the Bureau of Unnatural Registry. I’ve always had an eye out for Lyall, because he showed great promise, and here he’s given the chance to show who is the brain behind Lord Maccon’s brawn, besides being a shrewd and consummated politician and a man – or rather werewolf – with a great sense of understated humor. Here is an example:
“A vampire extermination mandate. Ordering a death bite on Lady Maccon’s neck. Amusing, considering she cannot be bitten, but I suppose it is the thought that counts.”
Through Lyall we make another fascinating discovery: Ivy Hisselpenny, Alexia’s best friend and scatter-brained wearer of outrageous hats, is a far deeper person than she lets on. When she tells him “I may, Professor Lyall, be a trifle enthusiastic in my manner and dress, but I am no fool” we understand there is more to her than appears on the surface. Alexia’s choice of friends also shows she is not deceived by mere appearance, and this sheds new light on her association with Ivy. Now that the proverbial cat is out of the bag, it will be fascinating to see where the revelation will lead us in the next books, even though I’m certain her outlandish choice of words will continue to be a source of entertainment:
“Your younger sister was thrown over for a schoolroom chit, quite the persona au gratin, if you take my meaning.”
And what of the silent and steady Floote, Alexia’s butler? He not only comes across as a fighter and expert marksman, he also reveals a few tantalizing details about her father and his past. Though still tight-lipped about his previous employer, he seems more inclined by present circumstances to be more forthcoming: what this will mean in the long run is something that I hope to discover as the series progresses. Meanwhile I know I can enjoy his presence in its new and not-so-silent incarnation.
Blameless also affords us a deeper look into the steampunk side of these novels, with a considerable array of gadgets and contraptions (killer ladybugs!!) that enrich the narrative, complete with a variety of inventors and scientists – both of brilliant or evil inclination – better embodied in the returning character of Madame Lefoux, inventor-cum-hat-maker and architect of Alexia’s latest, gadget-filled parasol. Lefoux is a fascinating figure, a woman who goes against all conventions by wearing male attire and exploring the depths of science. Her outspoken, though not returned, interest in Alexia as something more than a friend adds a little spice in the overall mixture and once more promises interesting developments.
With this book, the Parasol Protectorate series shows its ability to combine amusing premises with more serious aspects: a clear example of that is the situation with Biffy, Lord Akeldama’s drone, and the implications about divided loyalties that without doubt will be explored in future. What started as an entertaining story is gaining more substance and depth with each new installment, and it’s the kind of promise that will keep me reading on.
My Rating: 8,5/10