Monday, September 05, 2011

“Heartless” by Gail Carriger (Orbit)

Reviewed by Alyssa Mackenzie

Carriger-HeartlessAre treason and conspiracy threatening London?

Lady Alexia, soulless, is at it again – only this time the trouble in the air is not her fault.

When a mad ghost threatens the queen, Alexia is on the case, following a trail that leads her deep into her husband’s past. Top that off with a sister who has joined the suffragette movement (shocking!), Madame Lefoux’s latest mechanical invention and a plague of zombie porcupines – and Alexia barely has time to remember she just happens to be eight months pregnant.

Will she be able to figure out who is trying to kill Queen Victoria before it’s too late? Is it the vampires again or is there a traitor lurking about in wolf’s clothing? And do they really have to take up residence in Lord Akeldama’s second best closet?

I have been a fan of The Parasol Protectorate since I read Soulless last year: the series is consistently charming, original, and laugh-out-loud funny. Heartless, the fourth volume of the series, is no exception, and Carriger’s readers will not be disappointed.

In Heartless, we find Alexia nearing the end of what has been an unusually trying pregnancy. The brief estrangement from her husband and the rather adventurous trip to Italy in the previous book aside, it seems that since we last saw her she has been subjected to repeated assassination attempts by the London vampires, who are terrified of her unborn child. When the novel begins, she has been reinstated as muhjah (preternatural advisor to the Queen), and when she and the Westminster Hive arrive at a truce early in the novel, she hopes to be able to pass the rest of her pregnancy in relative peace. That is, until she is called upon to track down a threat to the queen.

As always, Carriger’s writing is brisk and engaging. The dry wit that characterised her previous novels is here in abundance, in both the dialogue and the narration. Alexia’s pregnancy is the source of much hilarity: as might be expected, her condition has done nothing to curb her appetite, and all of the men in her life have learned to come into her presence only when armed with snacks. Carriger is able to pick up the traditional themes in jokes about pregnant women – weird cravings, mood swings, and weight gain – without any of the humour seeming tired or flat. As we follow Alexia through each stage of her life (spinster, wife, and now soon-to-be-mother), Carriger keeps her creation fresh and engaging, and a treat to read.

One of the amusing side-effects of Alexia’s soullessness is that her utter lack of sentimentality in general extends to her pregnancy in particular. While she looks forward to the child’s birth, she finds no romance in her situation. She refers it as “the infant inconvenience”, and seems mostly to be irritated by her increasing girth and the related lack of mobility (one of the recurring jokes of the novel involves Alexia’s need to be helped – by which I mean hauled – out of any chair she happens to be sitting in).

While I really enjoyed reading Alexia’s attempts to track down conspiracy while heavily pregnant, for me, what really made this novel were the side characters; both the time we spent them and the things we learned about them. In this book, Madame Lefoux, Professor Lyall, Biffy, Lord Akeldama, and even the enigmatic Floote are all given time in the limelight. Plots that began in earlier books are developed and their consequences explored – a substantial side plot is devoted to Biffy, as he comes to terms with his new and unplanned lycanthropy and what it means for his future (and his relationship with Lord Akeldama). There are some very interesting developments in Madame Lefoux’s life (I really look forward to seeing how these plan out in the final book). We also learn more about Lord Maccon’s former pack, Professor Lyall’s history, and Alexia’s father, all of which suggest that Timeless should be pretty exciting. Carriger’s supporting cast is so uniformly (and uniquely) quirky and endearing that I am extremely fond of them all, and I was delighted to see more of them.

I will say that I don’t think Heartless was as successful at integrating the personal journey and discovery that contribute to the overarching plot of the series into the individual plot of the novel as the previous two novels were – for me, the main mystery was not the most interesting part of the book, and seemed separate from the larger revelations at hand. In some ways, it seemed like the main point of this novel was to set things up for the final book in the series. Nonetheless, this is an extremely enjoyable read, with all of the sarcasm and silliness we have come to expect from Gail Carriger.

Heartless is a brilliantly entertaining read, and I cannot wait for Timeless.

Highly recommended.

The Parasol Protectorate: Soulless, Changeless, Blameless, Heartless, Timeless (2012)

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