Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: Heartless by Gail Carriger, Book 4 of the Parasol Protectorate

Our favourite urban fantasy heroine is back. Alexia Maccon, La Diva Tarabotti is back in London and heavily pregnant. But she has a bothersome problem - the vampire hives still want her dead because of the child she carries. The constant murder attempts are really quite tiresome and Alexia is left with a rather dramatic solution - adoption. Having her child adopted by Lord Akeldama, and rather disrupting her own domestic arrangements to be near it. of course, Alexia is a master of disruption - in causing it at least.

Being on rather more polite terms with the Vampire hives, she finds herself pursuing a new mystery. The ghosts of London come to her with a warning - someone is trying to kill the Queen. Naturally, as Muhjah to Queen Victoria, she takes this very seriously indeed.

Her investigation takes many interesting turns, including inducting Ivy Tunstel nee Hisslepenny into the ancient- well, rather new order of the Parasol Protectorate, investigating the attempt on the Queen’s life 15 years ago that involved Lord Maccon’s old pack and finding that absolutely nothing was what it seems

And then she finds herself in the extremely tricky position of playing host to a vampire hive of all things. As you may well imagine, vampires and werewolves do not make happy bedfellows.

As ever, except for some problems we’ll mention later, Alexia Maccon is one of the best protagonists in Urban Fantasy. She’s independent, she’s strong, she’s intelligent and she’s fierce. I adore the stress and and conniptions she causes all around her. I love the thinly veiled wariness the other characters regard her with. I love how she forges through society doing things her way no matter what. I love how, even in the most extreme circumstances, she is calm, collected and snarky - and I love just how screamingly funny she is.

And she doesn’t have to be super woman to be all this, her powers are not extensive or miraculous, certainly not in comparison to her supernatural companions. Often in Urban Fantasy a strong female character is depicted with extreme skills or super powers - Alexia Maccon needs neither to be strong and awesome.

The story is exciting and has many twists in it. I was sure I had figured out the truth before the end and then turned out to be very wrong. We have some wonderful world building and insight into Alexia’s father, the Woolsey pack’s history and so much more of this fascinating and complicated world. I never guessed at some of the revelations, was surprised and fascinated and am left hungry for even more.

I love many of the side-characters - Ivy Tunstel’s acceptance of Alexia’s status and induction into the Parasol Protectorate made me laugh out loud. Lord Maccon’s wasn’t in this book a great deal but I still love his exasperation with the world around him that has been heavily Alexia’d.

And, of course, this series is screamingly funny. Again, I laughed out loud and again I spent most of the book chuckling away. And though it’s a repetition of what we’ve said in past reviews, we’d still be wrong not to praise this book for its excellent impression of time and place. I have never before read a Paranormal Steampunk that has such an evocative sense of Victorian era London. You can believe the setting and it feels real.

It really comes to a point where it’s hard to adequately praise the positive elements of this book without just gushing and repeating superlative adjectives until I get dizzy from the fanpoodling

If this was the end of the review, I’d even now be joyously pasting 5 Fangs at the bottom and rhapsodising some more in conclusion. Alas, it is not the case, because in this beautiful gem of a book, we have a glaring flaw that we cannot ignore.

Lord Akeldama and his crew.

Lord Akeldama and his drones have always been problematic figures in the books. Walking stereotypes - caricatures - their presence never failed to make me cringe. They epitomised the trope of Pass at Writing Gay Characters I would honestly have preferred there be no GBLT characters in this series than the caricatures we were presented with. And, sadly, Heartless takes this portrayal to intolerable levels, in part because Akeldama has so much more presence in this book.

Akeldama doesn’t walk. He Sashays. He Wafts. He Flounces. He even Minces. Yes, minces. He flourishes his napkin. He is outrageous and fabulous and straight out of central casting for a stereotypical gay caricature.  He even conquers citrus not because it is a weakness for vampires, but because lemons help his hair appear shiny.

In a series where everyone else studiously refers to each other by their surnames (as is proper etiquette and is part of the wonderful way this series truly expresses the Victorian era and sensibilities), Akeldama uses pet names. Pomegranate Seed, Lilac Bush, My Droney Poo (I kid you not), Dew Drop, Dolly Darling (he uses darling a lot). He speaks with lots of itallics so we can see he is emphasising many of his words, darling yes, that classic dramatic, over-emphasised speech of a stereotypical gay man. Why not just have him lisp?

Akeldama owns not one, but 2 closets. 2 closets big enough to be bedrooms. Sacrificing them is a truly shocking event. His clothes are always described (and are immaculate)- and they are always outrageously elaborate - right down to his matching series of jewelled monacles. He and his drones have a ludicrous love of interior decorating.  They’re fascinated by women’s clothes (getting fashion plates from Paris) and Akeldama is near tears suggesting Alexia dress as a servant to go undercover. And Akeldama has successfully overcome a vampire’s aversion to citrus - to make him stronger, tougher, harder to kill? No, so he can use lemon juice on his hair.

And to finish it off, Alexia is worried about Felicity and Akeldama conspiring together because they’re so catty. And Akeldama actually finds a pink, fizzy drink.

Contrast that with the oh-so-manly werewolves - who are dishevelled, often badly dressed (real men do not care about such piffling things as whether a cravat is tied properly) frustrated by the vampire drones’ effete mannerisms and traumatising Akeldama with moustaches. And of course, Biffy is having great trouble fitting in with all these manly men and is much happier running a women’s hat shop. The only werewolf who has any refinement is bisexual - and is often characterised by his ability to be invisible. It’s at this point where you really have to question whether this is intentional.

When I come across a caricature that is this stereotyped my stock phrase is “it’s a hairdresser and a finger-skater away from a full set” however, since Biffy is a ladies’ maid and already did Alexia’s hair for her wedding (he was also the gay wedding planner), I can’t even use that phrase any more. All we need is the finger-skater. It’s at this point where I just stop pointing out the many many problems of the portrayals simply because it’s getting ridiculously long - and I think the point is made.

I wanted to love this book, but Akeldama was such a huge barrier to my enjoyment that I spent too much time throwing it down in disgust and walking away, angry and offended. I could only relax and truly be gleeful about this book when Akeldama is not on the page - or even close to it.

Another problem is Alexia’s pregnancy.  From the moment she learns that she is pregnant she refers to the child as the infant inconvenience.  This of course is typical attitude and behaviour coming from the wonderful Lady Macon.  Where she loses is me is her ridiculous emotional behaviour.  I can understand Alexia being irritated, after all, carrying a baby while a life changing event, is not always pleasant to say the least. What does not make sense is Alexia suddenly breaking down in tears.  The idea that women are especially subject to their hormones during pregnancy is sexist and in this case, beyond ridiculous.

In light of this, while I dearly want to fanpoodle and give it 5 Fangs that the story on its own would deserve, I cannot - these deeply problematic elements ripped too much joy out of the book for me and actually left me regarding the promise of the next book with no small amount of wariness, rather than the utter glee I expected - which is horrendously tragic