Heartless – Gail Carriger
Should anyone wonder if there’s something that can ever stop Alexia Tarabotti Maccon, the answer is in this book: nothing. Not even the advanced stages of pregnancy. Despite the increased girth and some limitations imposed by the “infant inconvenience” on her mobility, Alexia manages to waddle her way through a series of events with the same spirit and the same boldness we’ve come to know and love. There’s indeed a sentence that represents that attitude in a nutshell: she waddles fiercely – and others must move, hastily, out of her way.
This fourth volume in the Parasol Protectorate series starts with another attempt on Alexia’s life perpetrated by vampires, who are quite worried about the abilities of the child she carries, a rare hybrid of supernatural and soulless. The scheme (carried out with zombie porcupines, in pure Carriger style) fails only because the would-be vampire killer, who holds a quite civil conversation with his intended victim (propriety must be observed at all times, after all!), learns of the solution implemented by the Maccons to ensure their child’s safety: adoption by none other than Lord Akeldama, Alexia’s long-time vampire friend and master of elegance and fashion.
To keep the family united, despite the unusual arrangement, Alexia and her husband are forced to live in Akeldama’s own house, even though they publicly buy the mansion next door to keep up appearances: the cohabitation of vampires and werewolves presents of course logistical problems, as well as some aesthetic ones, since Conall Maccon is Akeldama’s polar opposite in matters of style, considering that “his perfectly tailored evening jacket draped about massive shoulders with a degree of reluctance, as if it were well aware that it was worn under sufferance”. To make matters worse, Alexia’s sister Felicity comes to live with them, having been evicted from home due to her sympathies for the suffragette movement; young Biffy is adapting badly to his status as a newly-minted werewolf, since he pines for his former master Akeldama; and a ghost is desperately trying to warn Alexia about an impending attempt on the Queen’s life.
All these elements – and others I will not mention because readers should encounter, and enjoy them, on their own – contribute to one of the best stories in this series: the humor I’ve become accustomed to is there and comes both from situations and from witty repartees, and the mystery Alexia must solve is a complex one that takes her down unexpected avenues and equally unexpected discoveries. Lovers of steampunk gadgetry will have a field day with Heartless, because contraptions big and small are featured along the way, together with the now-famous parasol and its almost inexhaustible cache of surprises.
But there is more, much more, since we learn a few intriguing details about characters we know: some are welcome ones, like Ivy’s matter-of-fact acceptance of Alexia’s nature, or rather the revelation that she had always known and never mentioned it to avoid causing embarrassment to her friend. Ivy Tunstell already manifested herself as much more than the airhead she appears to be, yet here she comes to the fore not only as a shrewd observer of people, but as a staunch and reliable friend, and it’s a joy to get this glimpse of her true nature. In a sense, she’s as much Alexia’s Beta as Professor Lyall is to Conall Maccon, and Lyall is indeed another character who gets some interesting moments in the spotlight, as we learn more about the past of the Woolsey pack, the Professor’s involvement in Conall’s rise to Alpha status and Lyall’s reasons behind its facilitation – reasons that tie with Alexia’s own past. I’ve always had a particular interest in Lyall because I felt there was more behind his self-effacing attitude, and I’m quite happy with the revelations we were given here, not only for the peek into the past they afforded, but also because I enjoyed quite a bit the seamless blend of fun and drama that Carriger was able to effect with this part of the story.
Much as this series is fun-oriented, the occasional sidestep into more serious territory comes across quite well, and shows the author’s ability in changing the tune of her story without losing the overall “flavor”. The fact that this more somber duty is carried on Lyall’s shoulders makes the choice just perfect, given the earnestness of the character, the past losses he must deal with and the way he faces them: “Things are never good when immortals fall in love. Mortals end up dead, one way or another, and we are left alone again. Why do you think the pack is so important? (…) It is not simply a vehicle for safety; it is a vehicle for sanity, to stave off the loneliness.” If I liked the Beta before, now he’s now one of my favorite characters in the story.
Felicity Loontwill, on the other hand, becomes something more than the acidic half-sister who enjoys throwing vitriolic quips at Alexia, even though the proximity with Lord Akeldama offers some interesting possibilities, as Alexia herself considers at some point: “Felicity should not be overexposed to Lord Akeldama, on the basis of cattiness alone. If left together for too long, the two of them might actually take over the civilized world, through sheer application of snide remarks.” Felicity’s reasons for pestering Alexia hold much darker overtones and lead to a big surprise, even though those choices still remain in perfect synch with her personality and disposition, while still managing to put the girl’s self-centeredness and ultimate vapidity into sharp focus.
The main event of the book, however, is the birth of Alexia’s child: not surprisingly it happens in a moment of maximum confusion and upheaval, in the midst of a heated battle. There’s an image I feel the need to share about this scene, because it showcases perfectly Carriger’s way with words as she describes the werewolves storming out of Woolsey Castle: “They poured out the lower doors and windows of the castle, howling to the skies. They evolved into a kind of cohesive moving liquid, flowing down the hillside as one silvered blob, like mercury on a scientist’s palm.” It’s a strong image, and one that managed to make me forget for a moment all that was going on.
Not for long, though, because of the big surprise that comes with the revelation of the child’s abilities. Little Prudence (so named because it’s something she will need, considering her parentage and the environment she will live in) can take on the supernatural characteristics of those she comes into contact with: I have an inkling of where this will lead the story, mostly thank to THESE REVIEWS of Gail Carriger’s first book in her new series, but still I know it will be quite a fun journey of discovery.
My Rating: 8/10