Review: Heartless by Gail Carriger

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Title: Heartless
Genre: steampunk, historical fiction, JUST PLAIN AWESOME
Series: The Parasol Protectorate #4
Pages: 374 (paperback)
Published: July 2011
Source: bought
Rating: 5/5

The heroine of this unbelievably rich and vivid series is ultra proper and beautifully mannered Lady Alexia Maccon (formerly Tarabotti), a preternatural of (gasp!) Italian descent in an alt-Victorian England. In this world that Carriger has so deftly crafted a 'preternatural' is a person without a soul, and thus the direct opposite of vampires/werewolves, as those were people who died and possessed excess soul enough to become either a vampire, werewolf or ghost. The idea of 'excess soul' being the catalyst and determining factor of supernaturality is ingenious and intriguing. The mythology and world-building of this series are incredibly well-thought-out and unique in structure. Alexia's physiology makes her completely unique in nature, but she has all too-human problems, as exhibited in each book. In a genre populated with stereotypes and cliches, this was a breath of fresh air. It is a clever book in a clever series by a very smart woman. Between the dirigibles, octomatons (dangerous octopus weapons), mysterious secret societies (Hypocras Club, Order of the Brass Octopus, Alexia's own Parasol Protectorate), sexy werewolves, ultra-mannered and fashionable vampires (Victorian collars -- invented to hide the fang marks!) and sheer originality (a fang lisp for new vampires! Werewolves have packs with Alphas, but vampires have hives with Queens), and tea --- what more could you want?

There are plenty of books with worlds/universes I love and enjoy reading about; this is one of the very few I would like to live in. I'd also love to be Alexia's best friend (take that Ivy/Genevieve!) and help her with her zany, diverting and dangerous schemes. Another reason this book is so hard to put down (if you need more besides the awesome characters, witty dialogue, ingenious steam machines, werewolves/vampires, tea, more witty dialogue...) is that from page one, the atmosphere is enveloping. Well-researched in all aspects, without being overbearing on extraneous details, from clothing trends (do you know how to tie a cravat? or even what one is?) to correct phrasing and speech ("notoriety mongers" instead of "fame whores"), not one word feels out of place. It is certainly important to me to know what Alexia is wearing, but not at the expense of the plotting and development. A perfect balance of the frivolous and the necessary keep the tone light and the amusement nonstop, while continually building the mystery and tension.

Set in a steampunk version of Victorian England in the 19th century, Alexia is not your typical apathetic/passive Victorian woman. She's brash, abrasive, intelligent and above all, curious. Far from conforming to her society's ideals of women at the time, Alexia largely acts the part of a man in that point in history: she makes the important decisions, she rules her husband completely, she's on a secret council with the Queen of England: in short, she's an independent woman in a time of harsh repression for her sex. Interestingly, Carriger has some of the men in Alexia's life assume the roles and positions thought acceptable for women instead forced upon the males (Biffy as a lady's maid, Lyall organizing the house while Alexia does more 'mannish' activities, Floote running her life, etc.) This dichotomy is just another reminder of how very different Alexia is from the rest of humankind (and supernaturalkind) in her views, actions and day-to-day life.

Continuing in the same cheeky, smart tone as the amazing first three in the series, Heartless does not miss a beat. Characters beloved and loathed (ahem, Felicity) from Alexia's adventures before are all present, with new aspects or facets to their well-known personalities. Another reason I enjoy Alexia so much as a heroine is that she knows she has a large cast to back her up and she is not afraid to call on them. Not for her to decide it's all down to her and her alone: she might make all the decisions but when she needs help she is not too proud to ask. This large (mostly) amiable group of Floote, Lord Akeldama, Ivy & Tunny, Genevieve, Lyall, Conall, Biffy have a nice chemistry and camaraderie among them, though be it may that of those browbeaten into submission by a determined woman. Ivy even grows a bit as a character: she's shown to possess hidden facets of intelligence and observance heretofore believed outside her mental capacity. Genevieve, the alluring and shady French inventor gets more on-screen time than the last novel, eliciting much interest from me because she is such a morally grey character. Sadly, I did not get as much time with Alexia's sexy husband Conall as I'd have liked but in the face of all the awesome femaleness all up in this book, I think I can deal. As long as he's more involved in the last in the series, Timeless.

Can we talk about how fun it is to read these characters? Not only their inner monologue and thoughts, but conversations sparkle with wit and humor. Oh, I am so sorry. Humour. I look forward to reading any exchange involving Lord Akeldama especially: his flair and fashion are some of my favorite bits of each book. The question of the status of his star-crossed love with Biffy is finally answered in a way that surprised me with its simplicity. I do have to say the romance angle was much more played down than before (practically nonexistent), however as Alexia is supposed to be nine months pregnant during the events of the novel, it is understandable but much lamented. Ms. Carriger managed to drop quite a few bombs on me, about some of my most beloved characters! Incorporating events from past books in the series, a new spin was put on much of what I had thought I knew about these familiar characters. Speaking of spinning things in unexpected ways: the ending. While I predicted many of the outcomes (I don't mind because it was so fun getting there) the author still managed to pull the rug out from under me, even as I correctly anticipated many turns and twists.

This is an excellent, excellent series. I thoroughly enjoyed this fourth foray into the steam-powered world of Alexia Maccon, and I am only sorry that there remains only one more book left in this series. I highly, highly recommend reading all of them. Even if you've never read steampunk (I've heard this called steampunk, which I think is perfect) try with this series. It doesn't get caught up in the machinery aspect and lose the characters, nor does it ignore the technology as unimportant until the end. Excellent novel, one of my favorites of 2011.


  1. This may go on the TBR list. I've never read steampunk before but since it's a world you would like to live in and there are octopus weapons, I'm pretty much there.

  2. It should. It was the series that convinced me to give steampunk a try. It's so lovely and fun. I can't recommend it enough. And there are octopuses (octopi?) all OVER the books. :)

  3. I've been wanting to read a steampunk novel for a while now and this sounds like the perfect way to test-drive the genre. Thanks for the review!

  4. I completely recommend this series, but definitely start with Soulless, the first one. I hope you like them!


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