I wrote a short appreciation of the Parasol Protectorate series in yesterday's Indian Express. Talking about three books in a limited number of words was difficult, but I managed to touch on some of the aspects of these books I love: that they're funny, fluffy, clever and wonderful at relationships. I wish I'd also been able to talk about how they're very, very geeky. Romance novels that my boyfriend is as excited about as I am. That is pretty amazing.
Everyone is sick of love stories with vampires in them. Most people are well on the way to being sick of werewolf romances as well. And among the groups of people who actually know what Steampunk is, it has for some time been commonly thought to have had its day.
With this in mind, Gail Carriger’s series of steampunk romances featuring both vampires and werewolves ought to feel stale and annoying. Yet three Parasol Protectorate books (Soulless, Changeless and Blameless) have come out in the past year, I have devoured them all, and I am in no danger of tiring of them.
Soulless introduces us to Alexia Tarrabotti, a London spinster afflicted with a large nose, an Italian surname and a surfeit of intelligence. She’s also a preternatural, the opposite of supernatural. Not only does she have no soul, but physical contact with makes vampires and werewolves temporarily mortal.
Unlike most well brought up Victorian ladies, therefore, Alexia knows “the supernatural set” quite well. She is especially fond of the vampire Lord Akeldama with his outrageous clothing and harem of attractive young men; and Professor Lyall, the wonderfully sane werewolf Beta. Equally, she feels strong dislike for the gorgeous Lord Maccon, a werewolf pack Alpha with an annoying protective streak where Alexia is concerned. Of course she does.
Romance fans know exactly where this is going.
Soulless is primarily a romance (though with plenty of blood and guts and mad scientists). Its sequels, Changeless and Blameless are closer to adventure novels. Changeless has Alexia traveling to Scotland (by dirigible), while Blameless has her being chased across Europe amongst a gloriously silly profusion of guns, false moustaches and hot air balloons.
These books are ridiculous, and entirely comfortable being that way. But they’re also intelligently conceived. The series is thoroughly grounded in history – in Carriger’s universe the Puritan fathers left England over the decision to welcome supernaturals into society, and werewolf and vampire skills, social dynamics and safety converns are the major reasons for the Empire, the bureaucracy, and the blandness of British cuisine. Real historical concerns are brilliantly woven in; for example the second and third books in the series both address the Egyptian Question in ways that are wholly unexpected.
Alexia is a wonderful heroine. There’s never any danger that falling in love will cause her to lose herself. She’s clever, frequently self-serving, not particularly nice, and fully capable of bludgeoning you to death with her parasol should she feel threatened.
Equally, as satisfying as Carriger’s rather Heyeresque romance plot may be, the majority of the series’ most moving moments have come from the marvelous cast of side characters. I love Alexia and Maccon but would quite happily sacrifice their adventures if it meant more time with Lord Akeldama and his partner Biffy, or Madame LeFoux (excellent milliner or evil genius?) or (especially) the magnificent Professor Lyall.
Carriger’s language owes a lot to Wodehouse. It’s a difficult style to sustain, and occasionally the author slips up or sounds too forced. But this is easy enough to forgive. These books are unselfconsciously funny, smart, and completely fresh. They’re an absolute delight.
I don’t know how long this series is going to be; a fourth and fifth book have been announced, but there is no information on whether the fifth will be the last. But if Carriger is going to keep producing things at this rate and of this standard, I’d be quite happy for it to be, well, endless.