Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review: Changeless by Gail Carriger, Book 2 of the Parasol Protectorate Series

I am going to say right up front, that when it comes to Gail Carriger, we have officially become fan poodles so do not expect an unbiased review.  Changeless marks the return of the indefatigable Lady Maccon, formerly known to us Miss. Alexia Tarabotti. Just as with Soulless, the first book in the Parasol Protectorate series Alexia continues to be a protagonist that is simply beyond compare. She is bright, funny, daring, logical, sarcastic but must importantly, strikingly independent, despite her marriage to Lord Maccon.  These traits are rare in a female protagonist and LJ Smith, Charlaine Harris,  and Cassandra Clare, really need to read this series and take notes. Yes, this is how it's done. This is how you make a character who is strong and intelligent. Who is independent but doesn’t make awful decisions. Who holds her own without being unreasonable, violent or a spoiled child throwing a tantrum. Not a whiff of Spunky Agency or Keille Independence In short, I don’t think we’ve come across a better female protagonist in this genre.

When Lady Maccon awakes in the morning to find her husband yelling, she assumes instantly that it is time argument and instantly argues back half asleep, with no idea what is going on.    
"Wasn't me, she immediately said, without having the barest hint of an idea as to what her husband was carrying on about. Of course, it usually was her, but it would not do to fess up right away, regardless of whatever it was that had his britches in a bunch this time." 
On several occasions various people turn to Lord Maccon from sort of relief from Alexia's biting tongue, but no relief is to be found, because Lady Maccon is simply determined to have her say.  

Lady Maccon further is not afraid to involve herself in action whenever necessary.  When the pack returns and takes up residence in the forecourt, Major Channing Channing of the Chesterfield Channings no less, has the misfortune to assume Lady Maccon is the hired help and becomes openly suggestive and condescending towards her. He quickly learns of his mistake when he is hit squarely over the head with her beloved parasol, Lady Maccon's weapon of choice.  It is virtually impossible to read the exchange without laughing out loud.  Fortunately for us, this is not the last we see of Lady Maccon and her infamous parasol.

In Changeless, the super human creatures i.e. vampires, werewolves and ghosts suddenly discover that their ability to shift form or in the case of ghosts remain tethered to the earth has disappeared.  No one is certain of the cause, but most agree that a weapon is being used.  The inability to shift means that for the first time in perhaps hundreds of years, vampires and werewolves are once again mortal.  Having been chosen by Queen Victoria to fulfill the long vacant role of muhjah, Lady Maccon is thrown deeply into the mix. In a trip that takes her across the length of the country, she delves into her husband’s past, faces considerable threats, to find the source of the mystery and the threat - all with characteristic snark, intelligence and wit.

While Lady Maccon’s character is wonderful and overshadowing, her supporting cast needs mentioning - whether her dear, loyal, twitterpated and confused friend, Miss Hisslepenny (with her truly dreadful hats and extreme scandalous dramas that Lady Maccon has no time for), through to her constant sparring with the passionate and aggressive Lord Maccon; the characters bounce off each other and Lady Maccon extremely well - they’re very human, very real and very funny.

As with Soulless the language use in Changeless is perfect. It’s extremely true to the era, wonderfully flowery and descriptive and immerses you strongly in the time place and setting. Even the Scottish accents were decently well done, and we’ve seen some terrible written accents in the genre before. And, of course, it serves to make an already amusing series hilariously funny. This was not a book that’s easy to read in public simply because I couldn’t help but laugh out loud in places.

And, of course, there are fails we have to mention. This actually caused me some trouble because I kept trying to mentally justify them or downplay them. I tried to run off into full denial mode “there is nothing wrong with this book! It is perfect in every way and anyone who says otherwise is a liar! A dirty rotten lying liar who lies!” Yes, i confess... I have descended to being a Fanpoodle of Gail Carriger. *Hangs head in shame* and I thought Kevin Hearne was my one weakness.

Which is silly of course, because no book is perfect, especially from a social justice perspective and we always have some criticism. Even books we love get stuff wrong - that doesn’t stop us loving them, but nor can we close our eyes to the societal problems that permeate all media. As with Soulless, there continue to be no characters of colour. The closest Carriger comes is the constant reminder that Alexia is of Italian descent. The other issue is the stereotypical representation of gay characters in the series. Lord Akeldama is described as an ancient vampire who sashayes.  Biffy is described as tripping out of the room. At one point, Alexia wondered  “whether Major Channing leaned in Lord Akeldama’s direction”, because there were “rumors about military men”.

And there is Madame Lefoux who is an inventor but is a decidedly butch lesbian. She always wears men’s clothing and even carries the steampunk equivalent of power tools. This is understood to be very eccentric but she is given a pass given her profession. Angelique had previously been Lefoux’s lover but had thrown her over after gaining the attention of Comtesse Nadasdy the queen vampire.  Playing into the idea that two women could not possibly be interested in each other without desiring to titillate a man. On page 228, Carriger writes: 
Alexia had seen something of the kind in her father’s collection, but she never imagines it might be based on anything more than masculine wistfulness or performances put on to titillate a john’s palate. That two women might do such things voluntarily with one another and do so with some degree of romantic love. Was this possible?”
Sadly the weight of these tropes combines to make gay men and lesbians hopelessly stereotyped caricatures (even if they are strong characters) while bisexual women are manipulative, plotting and deceitful. Perhaps it would not be so bad if it weren’t so strongly written - but we have so many examples without sufficient counter-examples. It’s a shame in an otherwise brilliant book

All in all, despite this book, this is a good, balanced, well paced story; with a truly excellent protagonist, a strong supporting cast, an amazingly well presented world and copious amounts of hilarity - all in all an excellent book. Heartily recommended - one of the good ones.