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Book Review: Curtsies & Conspiracies

Curtsies & ConspiraciesI’m finally catching up to my NetGalley obligations, posting reviews of books I’ve gained access to through my membership. In this case, it’s the second in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School Series, Curtsies & Conspiracies. As I mentioned last week, I inhaled both the first and this second book in the series in a sitting, enjoying the near-contiguous hand-off between the two.

In book two, Sophronia has started to settle in to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality when the group is warned that its members will face the first of the tests to determine whether the girls are, indeed, worthy to continue.

As usual, Sophronia sees conspiracies behind conspiracies, but has to suffer ostracism from her peers for her unusually high marks. Thus, she begins a closer association with non-student Vieve, Mme Lefoux’s niece, as well as the sootie, Soap, who’s been helping her keep Bumbersnoot well-fed. Together, the unlikely trio explore some of the details of the technology at the core of the series.

“The first aether-borne dirigible flight, and we get to witness it! Do you realize, if Giffard’s calculations are correct, this could halve float times? Can you believe it? We could get all the way to Scotland in four days! I wonder how he is handling aether-current monitoring. Can you imagine being that high up?”

Sophronia was not as impressed as Vieve thought she should be. “It is still faster by sleeper train.”

“Yes, but this is floating. Floating! Using aether currents. The possibilities are endless. It’s so exciting!” Vieve bounced up and down on Sophronia’s bed.

The young inventor had stopped by for a visit after breakfast. Sophronia had no idea where the scamp ate, but clearly it was within hearing distance of the assembly.

The expanding circle of incongruous names (Lord Dingleproops?! Felix Golborne, Viscount Mersey?? Professor Shrimpdittle! Picklemen, for crying out loud!) accounts for a reliable thread of laughter on its own, without considering the string of ridiculous circumstances Sophronia injects herself into. So while the author defined the Parasol Protectorate series as a comedy of manners, this series is shaping up to take the ridiculous deeper into the sublime.

I very much appreciate the association of the very fine points of etiquette with profound silliness, since it serves to underline the constraints under which people have chosen to operate while also illustrating that from another perspective, even constraints can serve a purpose and bring greater meaning to any given set of interactions.

So once again I will highly recommend a Carriger book for those looking for immersive, addictive escapism to a world that, while in some ways is staid and antiquated, also has interesting parallels to ours. The steampunk crossover with paranormal should appeal to a wide audience, even with such a young protagonist.

Book Review: Etiquette & Espionage

Etiquette & Espionage: Finishing School Series Book 1This is another book I picked up through my NetGalley membership. I’d thoroughly enjoyed Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series (and reviewed Soulless, Timeless, Heartless, Changeless, and Blameless on my blog), so even though this new series falls into the YA genre, it carries over enough of the steampunk world-building and even a few of the characters from that first series that I was tipped into wanting to read it. After all, a series intro like the one that comes with this book promises great things:

It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.

The writing style shows Carriger has continued to strengthen her trademark voice. The humor is deeply embedded in the story–but in a British, stiff-upper-lip tone that reflects what I enjoy most about Monty Python:

“How do you do? Isn’t this a spiffing day? Really, quite spiffing. I’m Dimity. Who are you?”

“Sophronia.”

“Is that all?”

“What, isn’t it enough?”

“Oh, well, I mean to say, I’m Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott, actually, in full.”

“Sophronia Angelina Temminnick.”

“Gosh, that’s a mouthful.”

“It is? I suppose so.” As though Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott were a nice easy sort of name.

The nicest part of the story is Sophronia’s evolution from family misfit to something even more interesting–and the subversive commentary on women’s roles even in very early 20th-century England. Above all, this finishing school is a way for young women of quality to become aware of the wider application of feminine wiles and tricks of accoutrement. It’s easy to imagine a school like this turning out the Mata Hari–in fact, the timeline of that woman’s life falls neatly into the framework established for this story, and I’m having a head-slapping moment for not having tumbled to that fact earlier.

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For the first in a series, this book does not suffer from over-explanation–though I suspect my deep familiarity with the Parasol Protectorate series may also mean I would have been irritated had the author gone into additional detail about the politics and world in which Sophronia is making her way. In fact, the inclusion of Mme Lefoux and her niece operated as something of Easter Eggs for me, and served as tidy reminders of the wider world Sophronia faces. Because, certainly, she is young and naive when she starts at the boarding school, and needs the perspective their experiences can bring to bear.

In view of the fact that I swallowed the book (and its sequel) in a sitting last year while I was supposed to be focused on finishing homework myself, I can highly recommend this book for its ability to draw the reader into an escapist fantasy operating on a consistent set of internal rules. For anyone who wants a more scientific take on young people away at school for the first time (as opposed to the magic in Harry Potter‘s universe), this should fit the bill nicely.

Book Review: The Shadow of the Lion

The Shadow of the LionMy Twitter friend @lianabrooks had a very specific request for a Friday reads recommendation yesterday for something “high fantasy set in Venice with pirates and witches.” It reminded me of the epic fantasy Mercedes Lackey co-authored with Eric Flint and Dave Freer. She asked me if it was good, and since Twitter just isn’t the place to get into that kind of answer in the depth I prefer to give… I’m just going to write a review here.

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The paperback version I have weighs in at over 900 pages and has a very short blurb:

A failed magician must find courage. An orphaned outcast must find his strength. A reluctant prince must choose between duty and pleasure. A dangerous beauty and a man of faith must make uneasy alliance. All will be consumed by an evil greater than they have ever known, if they cannot find safe harbor beneath The Shadow of the Lion.

The book starts with a prologue to acquaint the reader with the main players, then dumps you into the middle of a scary escape that allows the young protagonists to meet up and gain a little understanding of each other and build the beginnings of trust between them. However, in this version of Venice, there are magic-empowered priests and nuns and the vast gulf between those in power and the street urchins is all the more insurmountable for the additional weight on the side of the powerful.

The writing sucks you in and weaves the story among the various characters that builds an engaging tapestry:

He tried the arranged rendezvous. But Katerina wasn’t there. Seeing as it was close to the noise of Barducci’s, he slipped in. It was early still and the sailors weren’t there in numbers yet. On the spits they were cooking rows of toresani. The juniper-and rosemary-scented squabs gave Benito’s stomach an abrupt, pointed reminder that he hadn’t eaten yet. He hastened past to the bar where Valentina was plucking a complex melody. Claudia was counterpointing it, softly, with a treble flute. The audience was still a small one. Which was just as well. This was crying in your wine music…

He waited. When the tune was finished, Claudia tipped him a wink. “Someone casting dabblers about for you. That ‘Spook.’ I’ve seen her on the water, but never in here. Wants to meet you at the Campo San Felice about ten. You’d better take care, Benito. Those are bad people you’re mixing with.”

Coming from Claudia, that was scary. Still. All Katerina wanted him to do was to recover that parcel. She’d offered an entire ducat for the job, too. She’d been pretty pointed in her comments about what would happen to him if the stuff turned up on the market. If you’re lucky, the Servants of the Trinity will get you before my … associates do. Yeah. He’d fish that parcel out and leave her well and truly alone. He had responsibilities now. He might even have turned away from that ducat if he hadn’t been feeling guilty about not getting to the rendezvous. In the shadowy side of Venice, you were a man of your word or you didn’t survive.

The story evolves into a full-throttle crash course with war, complete with evil clerics and hidden ties among disparate characters, so while it is long (and, apparently, the first in a trilogy) the pieces come together in a fully satisfying way at the end of the book–with some intriguing possibilities left open to the future.

In answer to Liana’s question: Yes, it’s a good book. It takes a time commitment, so it’s not one I’m going to reread any time soon, but it has a permanent spot on my library shelf, and someday I will get around to the second and third in the trilogy. It’s a little more violent than I like, with the thugs and their beatings, and the general misery in which the main characters live. But the relationships between the characters are real and develop naturally. They force you to root for them, and hope they grasp their powers in time to save the city. Plus, who doesn’t want to read a book leading to the awakening of an ancient, magical beast of a city protector?

Book Review: A Brother’s Price

A Brother's PriceI learned about Wen Spencer through the random bookshelf promotion at a local book store via her Tinker and Wolf Who Rules books, so began reading further into her work. This one caught my eye for its very different take on male-female relations:

In a world where males are rarely born, they’ve become a commodity–traded and sold like property. Jerin Whistler has come of age for marriage and his handsome features have come to the attention of the royal princesses. But such attentions can be dangerous–especially as Jerin uncovers the dark mysteries the royal family is hiding.

Combined with a cover that points to a more classic view of the handsome prince rescuing a maiden (which is actually a scene in the book), I was curious to see what direction the story would take.

I didn’t expect something akin to the old west (19th-century technology for the most part), where horse-riding, gun-slinging, and an ability to wield a sword would be so prized. I was, however, rewarded with a world that so enabled me to suspend disbelief that the whole “only 1 in 10 children born is a male” was just another piece of the world-building and didn’t jolt me out of the story at all. (Of course, given my own fertility issues, that whole challenge rang pretty close to home anyway.)

More intriguing, though, was the absolutely consistent portrayal of an absolute inverse of the standard female position in our society. To whit:

That afternoon he took a stroll on the sundeck with Summer and Corelle. He had stepped out of his room intending to pull down his veil. The unobstructed sight of the sunshine on the water checked him. He climbed the stairs to the sundeck with his sisters trailing him.

Jerin expected Corelle or Summer to say something about his veil being up, but they didn’t. Feeling someplace between guilty and free, he walked the sundeck, more interested in the fellow passengers. They gave him wide smiles and nods of greeting, but, with quick looks at his armed sisters, didn’t speak to him.

At the stern, over the churning paddle wheel, he met Miss Skinner.

Tch, Mr. Whistler, what are you doing?” Miss Skinner reached up and tugged down the veil. “There are people on this boat not to be trusted. If they thought you were an ugly thing behind that veil, they might leave you alone. Don’t tempt them by showing them how stunningly beautiful you are.”

“I’m not stunningly beautiful.”

“Most women only see a few men in their lives. Their father. Perhaps their grandfather. If they are lucky, a brother and their husband. Any other men they see are always veiled. To them, anything with both eyes and sound teeth is a handsome man. My family are portrait painters. My hand is not as good as my sisters’, so I decided to teach instead, to see a bit of the world. Before I left, though, I had seen an extraordinary number of men and paintings of men. You, Mr. Jerin Whistler, are the most stunningly beautiful man I have ever seen.”

I’ve loaned my copy quite a few times by now and have not yet had a negative reaction–even from friends who are not typically into fantasy. This book is such a careful tapestry of gender, politics, and mystery that there’s something to appeal to any thoughtful reader, and has thus earned unabashed fandom from me. For anyone who wants whole-hearted escapism, this works well for sucking you in and surprising you in every chapter.

Review: Heartless

HeartlessI had been holding off on actually picking this up and reading it, because I knew that given Carriger’s past performance I really wouldn’t be able to do anything other than finish it once begun. True to form, once I got into it, my husband wasn’t able to get through to me on small issues like “what to eat” until I was done. Luckily, it’s another quick, delicious romp in alternate history Victorian England, where Carriger explains the unlikely political ascendance of that country with it’s openness to vampires, werewolves, ghosts… and Alexia.

Since it’s evident that I’m all about keeping up with the latest installment of the various series I get into, I have ample room for comparison on the development of characters and story arcs across multiple installments. In this case, Alexia matches Mercy Thompson for her ability to grow as a character from a confirmed and on-the-shelf spinster to a devoted and loving wife. Naturally, Alexia manages it with the stiff upper lip characteristic of the time she inhabits–and lots of tea drinking. (Of course, she comments rather frequently on her labile emotions in relation to the physical frustrations brought on by the infant inconvenience, but it seems her husband remains the more volatile of the pair.)

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The very nice thing about this series is that the characters remain true to themselves and develop in logical, though sometimes unexpected ways. I like they way Professor Lyall’s history is peeled back slowly and subtly throughout the course of this book, in complement to Alexia’s own deepening understanding of pack relationships and the way the truly demented can destroy the world around them.

In fact, I’ve seen this series described in multiple places as a comedy of manners–and there are some truly slapstick moments where a woman facing immanent accouchement overbalances–but this is not a laugh-out-loud kind of story the way Stephanie Plum’s are. The deeper messages about the nature of soul and the impact of deeply felt emotion on an individual’s character and choices take this story outside the realm of a fluffy puff piece.

The supporting cast of characters aside from Professor Lyall, like Felicity, Ivy, and Mme LeFoux, all display new and unique aspects that nonetheless underline their core motivations. And the way the story wraps up the whole ghostly warning thread really warms me to the theme of Alexia’s burgeoning talents in her professional development.

I’m very excited to read what Carriger claims is to be the last in the series next year, Timeless. I have no qualms recommending this book on the basis of its smart characters and layered interactions even to those who may not have previously read steampunk, mysteries, or even romances. While it’s easy to mistake this for lighter reading, the themes are meaty and engaging enough to stick with you long after you’ve reshelved the books.

Blameless Review

blamelessSince I’ve loved this entire series, now, and can’t wait for the next installment to come out (according to Amazon, that won’t happen until June 28, and I’m having a hard time containing myself in my excitement over its release!), I can’t avoid this third book in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series–despite my hesitation due to potential spoilers… I have to figure, though, that if you’re looking for a recommendation on whether to continue reading, that you already know Alexia had been settling into happily married life with the Earl of Woolsey until the very end of the last book. At which point she’s thrown out on her ear.

So this book starts with Alexia re-acclimating herself to living with her silly mother and sisters and the scandal attached to her rather public disagreement with her husband.

As usual, events accelerate quickly from the sour domesticity that introduces the tale, and soon Alexia is having to rely on friends from the previous books to help her find an explanation for the “inconvenience” brought on by her husband’s enthusiastic pursuit of marital relations.

We learn more about the politics of vampires and werewolves, as Alexia is restored to the Shadow Council in absentia, but the bulk of the story deals with the supernatural community’s obsession of what the result of the mating might be. Through the device of an unsavory scientist we learn even more about the “science of soul”.

This book cements Carriger’s status as a talented author with a unique (and British-dry humorous!) tone and style, who offers a tale with fascinating implications about the nature of soul. I’m absolutely hooked, and again have no hesitation recommending the book for anyone interested in alternate history, steampunk, or urban fantasy genres.

Changeless Review

Gail Carriger‘s engaging Parasol Protectorate series continues where it left off in “Soulless,” with “Changeless.” Alexia’s character continues her logical, phlegmatic, cuttingly witty development in this second installation, while the world around her continues its madcap evolution.

The original leitmotif regarding the levels of soul necessary to be/become supernatural beings is further fleshed out, while Alexia tries to adjust to her new status and be helpful to the other characters in the book.

And now I have to pause to ponder how to proceed in my review…

Necessarily, character development means that the adventures in a given series build somewhat on past experiences. But a reviewer can’t comment on the new experiences without giving away significant plot points from the earlier installation. So I will remain cryptic about who Alexia is becoming, and laugh up my sleeve about her first flight in a dirigible, while coming to the main point: In some series middle books feel like an annoying, necessary bridge to further the plotlines the author is pursuing. Carriger escapes that tendency with another delightful romp in alternative history England, in a story that could stand on its own without suffering from lack of background, but impels me to seek out the next in the series. Once again I have to give an enthusiastic thumbs-up to anyone who likes to read stories driven by feisty female main characters.

Steampunkery

Since Gail Carriger is a new discovery to me, and her Parasol Protectorate series is my introduction to the steampunk variation of alternate history fiction, I am happy to begin my online review career with an assessment of her work.

The series kicks off in high style with Soulless, a tale of Alexia Tarabotti’s young life in a late-1800s London not too far off from what we know from any other historical romance, with the key difference that Vampires and Werewolves are “out”. In fact, Carriger’s thesis is that the rise of the British Imperium doesn’t make sense without some supernatural intervention, given the small size of that nation.

The story is immediately captivating, both for its droll turn of phrase, and for its underlying metaphor: In this version of our world, there are people with an excess of soul who are eligible to be turned into supernatural beings (naturally enough, artists and actors and others typically seen as being easily overwrought); and then there’s Alexia, who has no soul. Not because she’s evil, but because some etheric component is missing in her make-up. As the story unwinds, there are many potential theories about whether this is an entirely genetic flaw, but ultimately, the reader, like Alexia, comes to the conclusion that the cause doesn’t matter as much as avoiding unnecessary attention. Unfortunately for Alexia’s peace of mind, she has a genius for getting herself involved in crazy circumstances, including, eventually being courted by the alpha werewolf, Lord Conall Maccon.

I’ve always been a fan of historical fiction for what I can learn about bygone eras. In this case, given the speculative elements added to a decidedly Victorian setting, the author is able to highlight the soul leitmotif in such a way as to make the reader wonder whether there’s any chance there could be more than a grain of truth to it. Certainly, I was left wondering whether I would want too much or too little for myself.

Alexia’s path evolves naturally, though by the end of the book I was a little tired of being reminded, yet again, that she’s half-Italian and at the fringes of acceptability to her society. For all that repetition, though, the story maintained its fast pace through to the end, and I had to immediately grab the second in the installation.

I would not hesitate to recommend this to anyone who’s inclined to historical fiction, werewolf/vampire fantasy, or romance. Since I’ve never read a steampunk genre book before, though, I couldn’t say whether this is a representative sample–though I will say it has set my standard for the style. Definite thumbs-up.

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