Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review: Changeless, by Gail Carriger (2010)

Taking up some time after the events of Soulless left off, Gail Carriger’s sequel brings back the gang: the too-dark-to-be-fashionable Alexia Tarabotti, now Lady Maccon; her werewolf husband, Connall Maccon; his valet, Tunstell; Alexia’s fashion-challenged friend, Ivy Hisselpenny; and stylish vampire Lord Akeldama. Parasols and tea continue to play important supporting roles. As the book opens, Alexia must deal with a pack of werewolves camped out on her husband’s property, having just returned from Her Majesty’s service abroad. At the same time, a mysterious zone appears, inside which all supernormal beings – werewolves, vampires, and ghosts – revert to their human form and are unable to change. When the pack leaves, the affected area returns to normal.

Rather than investigate this as part of his duties in the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, Lord Maccon abruptly takes off for Scotland, where he was once the Alpha of another werewolf pack. Alexia, seeking answers to both her husband’s absence and the power that renders the supernormal changeless, hires an airship to take her to Scotland as well. Unfortunately, she has to contend with several other passengers: her annoying, dimwitted sister, Felicity; her friend Ivy; and a French milliner-cum-inventor, Madame Lefoux, from whom Lord Maccon has commissioned a special parasol for Alexia. Intrigue abounds on the trip: Ivy and Lord Maccon’s valet, Tunstell, are clearly in love with one another, but Tunstell is an actor (and wants to become a werewolf), and thus is a most unsuitable match for Ivy. Felicity, who wants to be married, makes a play for Tunstell. Alexia’s French maid, Angelique, clearly knows Madame Lefoux, but will not explain why she distrusts the other woman. Alexia believes Madame Lefoux to be a spy, but is oddly attracted to her despite her mannish clothing. (As an aside: the fraction of gay characters in these books is reaching the level of Tipping the Velvet.)

Several attempts on Alexia’s life later, the group lands in Scotland, reunites with Lord Maccon, and reaches the castle belonging to his former pack, where they receive a chilly reception. Now leading the pack is a formidable battleaxe of a woman named Sidheag Maccon – Connall’s daughter. Alexia realizes that her husband has neglected to tell her a number of important facts about his past.

In between discovering what has been interfering with the ability of the supernormals to change form, discovering who has made attempts to kill Alexia, resolving the problem of the Scottish pack, and determining various loyalties, Lord and Lady Maccon find a fair amount of time to…well, it is a romance novel, after all. Alexia seems more eager than resigned to perform her “wifely duties,” as she put it, and to deal with the recurring problem of having her nightgown wind up on the floor. (Another aside: if one marries a studly werewolf, one has to expect that sort of thing to occur, it would seem.)

The thing about sequels is that the characters and setting are familiar. It’s more of the same, and, should the reader have enjoyed the earlier books in the series, the likelihood is high that the reader will enjoy the next one. At the same time, the author runs a risk that the series becomes stale because each book is a too-faithful repeat of the last. (Much as I loved Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, the last dozen or more fell into that category, wherein entire scenes seemed transplanted from one book to the next.) Changeless has some common elements with its predecessor: the lust-fueled romance between Alexia and her husband, Miss Hisselpenny’s horrid hats, the bickering between Alexia and the rest of her family, the rivalry between the werewolves and the vampires. (A third aside: if this reminds you of a certain other series of books and movies, disabuse yourself of the notion. For starters, no one glitters in sunlight.) Carriger’s dry wit and keen sense of the absurdity of Victorian fashions and social customs is a highlight of both books, and the very practical Alexia is a wonderful creation. This book has more plot and less dewy-eyed will-they-or-won’t-they romance than its predecessor, which is a good thing. The plot seemed more fully-developed than in Soulless, perhaps because having defined the main characters fully in the previous book allowed more of this book to be spent in plot development.

What’s not to like? For starters, Carriger makes little pretense at using Victorian language consistently. For every “What is the meaning of this, wife?” from Lord Maccon we have a dozen anachronistic phrases. I am untroubled by it, but others may be put off by that writing style. (A final aside: Carriger was a guest on the live-from-Balticon version of Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing podcast, along with writer Matt Wallace and songwriter John Anealio. During the discussion, Carriger made the honest but somewhat distressing comment that she wrote to sell books, and she’d make any changes that an editor suggested as long as she thought the changes would sell more books. Can’t we at least pretend that a successful author is willing to fight for her artistic vision? Otherwise, writers are just tradesmen who work in their pajamas.) Then there is the cliffhanger ending, which has disturbed a number of reviewers. I’m not a big fan of cliffhangers, and one certainly could have ended the book several pages earlier and dealt with the new material at the start of the next book, but I don’t think Carriger has been unfair to her readers. She wraps up fully the main plot lines, and one can think of the additional material as a little teaser to whet the appetite for Blameless. Who can blame an author for that?

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