Today I Read..The Forgotten Tale

the-forgotten-taleToday I read The Forgotten Tale by J.M. Frey, book 2 of the Accidental Turn trilogy.

After leaving behind the land of Hain, Forsyth Turn and Lucy Piper have returned to her world to settle down and live more-or-less happily ever after with their daughter Alis. It hasn’t been easy, with Forsyth getting used to a new land and a new culture and a new language, where he is no longer the rich and respected Lordling of Turnshire, no longer the powerful Shadow Hand of the King, no longer a brother or a friend to anyone. And worst of all, Alis will grow up never knowing his contribution to her heritage–she will not know the songs and stories from Hain, she will not have her place in society as the beloved daughter of a Lordling, she will not know his friends and family as her own. But they are together, Forsyth and Pip and Alis, and that is a comfort.

But there is a problem which will not go away–Elgar Reed, the author of The Tales of Kintyre Turn series. He is fascinated that his character has come to life, and will not understand that Forsyth does not want to have anything to do with this careless man who created him with so little thought, who put him through so much heartache and hardship, and who reminds Forsyth so much of his long-dead and unmourned abusive father.

Back in Hain, the famous heroes Kintyre Turn and his loyal friend Bevel Dom have done the unthinkable–they have retired and settled down (mostly) into a comfortable life together ruling Turnshire, as the Lord and his Paired. Until some long-lost family starts turning up unexpectedly. Family…and some enemies.

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J.M. sent me an e-book ARC in return for a review. Well, she sent me two copies–we had an entertaining lesson on converting files with 2 pages per pdf page into epub vs concerting files with 1 page per pdf page into epub. For entertainment, I’ll post a sample at the end.

This is the second book in the trilogy, and comes after The Untold Tale and Ghosts: An Accidental Turn Novella. I would definitely recommend reading The Untold Tale before reading The Forgotten Tale, as it does rely fairly heavily on what has gone before. Ghosts is more of a bonus–you’ll get by without having read it, but you’ll recognize more if you read it first, especially since it is where Bevel Dom really has a chance to shine.

This book is a great example of how “and they all lived happily ever after” is a cop-out, a phrase that glosses over the reality of what it really takes to make it happy day after day. Yes, both of the Turn brothers have married the loves of their lives, and had children, and settled down into a second line of work that they reasonably enjoy. They are also finding out that love is hard work, and that it requires constant work to stay a happy marriage. For all that Forsyth and Kintyre are very different people who married very different spouses, sometimes they can be remarkably similar, and make similar mistakes with their families which they need to recognize and correct to be both happy and healthy as a family. They are not alone at fault–their family members also need to learn to communicate their needs and listen to what Kintyre and Forsyth need. Pip condemns Forsyth’s anger instead of listening why he is frustrated, and Kintyre’s newest family member causes a great deal of trouble when he glorifies Kintyre’s past adventuring over his daily life of running the Chipping.

They also see the dark side of families, when they meet a relative of an old enemy who threatens their world, out of love for the villain. I won’t give away too much here, but just remember that the best bad guys never stay dead for long. As Buffy Summers told Dracula, “You think I don’t watch your movies? You always come back.”

Forsyth’s interactions with Elgar Reed are particularly fascinating to read. For Forsyth’s point of view, he and everyone he knows from Hain are people–flawed, complicated, fully developed people. Reed keeps being surprised as he learns about Forsyth–there are things he never thought about, things that he included as throwaway lines or as convenient plot points, that were never supposed to mean much. He never considers how such things affect people’s lives. Reed comes from the place of ultimate privilege–he is literally the creator of the world of Hain and everything in it. However, he is also a careless creator, who never once considered that his creations might have their own thoughts and feelings and desires, because he thought they were fictional. He is absolutely gobsmacked when he discovers just how far past Forsyth is from what he intended. For example, Forsyth points out that he was written as a scholar and a polyglot, with a knack for learning languages–in Pip and Reed’s world, this means that he picks up very quickly on programming languages for computers and becomes an accomplished hacker for CSIS. How does a fantasy world character react to the modern real world? By using his skills as best he can and relating his new life to his old one, and learning to adapt and survive.

One more thing I realized upon reflection of this book–J.M. once more demonstrated her talent for making me think about fictional conventions and my own reactions. There is a character from The Untold Tale who shows up again with their nonhuman partner, and who seems to be flirting with a new character (I don’t want to give too much away.) Both characters are presented as make, but I asked J.M. if the returning character is going to be revealed as a girl in disguise, because they seem to be a new love interest in the early stages. Specifically I said “Pretty sure [X] is a girl is disguise…Well, [Y] is a hero in training, and you’ve killed his first love interest to prove the situation is serious and torture him a little, so he needs a new love interest that he can forget about by the time the next book begins. And knowing you, she’ll make him work for it and won’t be that forgettable. But there’s something.” J.M.’s reply was “It’s like you study this stuff or something”. Which, yes, I do. But that can also trip me up. Why should [X] be a girl in disguise? That’s actually pretty heteronormative of me to assume. Why can’t they both be male and flirt? Just because [Y]’s first love interest is a girl, doesn’t mean that [Y] can’t be bi, or pan, or whatever they call it in Hain. I confess to accidental bi-erasure, and I apologize J.M. You caught me again. You always do make me think, and I can’t really give a higher compliment.

And one last thing–anyone in the Toronto area, the launch party for The Forgotten Tale is happening tonight on Tuesday, November 15, 2016, at 7:00 PM at  the Hard Rock Cafe Toronto. This will be the very first chance to buy the book, in advance of the release date on December 6, and a great time to get it signed by the author as well. Hope to see you there!

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With words tasting of bitter almonds, I say: “I hack.”

Reed’s sadness dissolves into confusion. “Hack what?”

“Whatever the Canadian Security Information Service tells me to,” I answer with a shrug, being deliberately glib. “I learned of hacking quite early upon my arrival here, and it was easy enough to read the many volumes available regarding coding. I am a polyglot, you recall—you wrote me that way. JavaScript and C++ are just another set of languages to perfect. And it was the easiest way to set myself up with a legal identity.”

“But . . .” Reed blusters. “Computers?”

“Of course. It is not so different from the work I did as the Shadow Hand,” I sneer, raising my hands to indicate the walls covered with wires and screens, and the small bookshelf overflowing with programming books, Alis’s favourite board books, and stuffies. On the wall above my main console, Smoke has been hung on a cherry wood plaque board. “I investigate, I read, I synthesize data, and I return recommendations and command actions. And just as before, I have found a way to ingratiate myself to the governing body of this nation.”

Reed’s jolly fat cheeks drain of color. “But you’re a scholar.”

“And in this world, libraries are digital and computers are books,” I say, stunned by his lack of comprehension. I scowl. “I was no mere book-mouse,” I push. “You know that.”

Reed staggers back a step, reaching out blindly behind him and crashing into the wall, clutching at my desk chair to remain upright. “I don’t . . . I didn’t . . .” He gasps for air, sweat pearling on his forehead.

His reaction startles me. Derision, I expected, but not this shocked horror. Unless . . .

“Reed . . .” I say slowly, horrified in my own right. For how, how can a Writer create a character and not know all of their nuances? How could he have . . . put this in motion and not realized it? “You do recall that I was the Shadow Hand, do you not?”

“I . . . I do,” he mutters. “I just . . . when I set it up, it was a . . . a bit of a throwaway, really. It was such an offhand comment. I didn’t . . . I didn’t expect you to . . .”

A throwaway? The most important aspect of my life, the only part of me that I felt made me worthy, and honorable, and good, the thing of which I was proudest and which redeemed me from being, I felt, a spoilt younger son, and my creator tells me it was a throwaway? Barely remembered, hardly thought about?

Insulting! Beyond the pale!

“What I do here, it is the same!” I insist. I cannot . . . this is untenable! “This is meaningful.”

“But . . . computers,” he repeats. “I just . . . I expected more . . . I don’t know . . . bafflement?”

“I have lived in this world for nigh on two years,” I snarl. “How simple must you think me? I am no Kintyre, to bash around, and bull ahead, and understand nothing.”

“Hey now,” Reed says, rising to defend his greatest literary achievement.

“Spying is the same no matter where it happens. I can learn all I need about a target by following their social media accounts, tracking their IP, watching their online spending habits. It is identical to my old duties, only I need to send out no Shadow’s Men, write no blackmail expense slips, take no in-person meetings with the king. Here, I need not even don the Shadow’s Mask, or Cloak. Here, I need not even change out of my sleeping clothes, if I so desire,” I add with a derisive snort.

My dark amusement rubs Reed the wrong way, and his hackles rise. “But being Shadow Hand wasn’t important! It was such a secondary feature of your character that I . . .” He trails off, eyes falling to his feet, shamed and confused. “I only put the Shadow Hand in one book.”

“Secondary. Secondary?” I hiss. “After Lewko the Elder was tortured by Bootknife, you chose me for Shadow Hand because, what? It was convenient? Because I was nearby? Being the Shadow Hand of Hain was my whole life! It was the only thing that was mine, truly mine!”

“Forsyth, I—” He swallows hard. “You’re just Kintyre’s little brother. You’re not supposed to—”

“Ah!” I snap. “And there is the crux of the problem! I am no hero, and so I cannot have a passion, have a desire to help? I am a citizen of Canada now, am I not? Do I not owe it to my kingdom to serve her best interests?”

“But it’s beneath you!” he shouts, his ire rising to match mine.

His disapproval surprises me. I expected him to understand. I don’t know why I did, because every conversation I’ve ever had with him has given me evidence enough to assume that he would not. Call it blind hope. Maybe, I thought, if I could make him understand, make him see it from my perspective, maybe we could have . . . reconciled our differences. Maybe we could have found the friendship he so clearly wants. Maybe, secretly, deep within the part of my soul that was born of his typewriter, I had wanted. . . . Ah, but it is pointless to wish for that which one cannot have. Reed will never understand how much he doesn’t know about what he has created.

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From the mixed-up files of Wading Through Books (not an actual quote), for your entertainment:

Elgar Reed, unfortunately, is. He sent us a very large nose, and Pip’s Asian facial structure.  But the look in her bouquet of flowers and some celebratory wine, along gaze when she is plotting mischief is all Kintyre Turn. with a startlingly large painting of Turn Hall looking, Right now, Alis is bouncing gleefully in a romper well, exactly as it ought. It was signed in the bottom attached to the lintel of my office doorway, smashing a corner by one of those fellows who worked on the Lord sodden Library against the edge of the harness each time of the Rings film designs, and was Reed’s first, but sadly her chubby little feet leave the carpet, and practicing not his last, foray into breaching the tight-knit tapestry three of the four words she has— book, Da, and no. Ma is of our family.

 

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Today I Read…Ghosts

ghostsToday I read Ghosts, An Accidental Turn novella by J.M. Frey.

The great hero Kintyre Turn and his companion Bevel Dom have just finished another adventure, when they are summoned back to Turn Hall by Kintyre’s younger brother, the Lordling Forsyth Turn. He has a quest for them to undertake. However, first they need to travel to Turn Hall, which is some distance away. They stop for the night in the town of Gwillfifeshire, where they meet a ghost and learn a valuable lesson about just where they ought to be sticking their swords, especially when it is uninvited. And when it is gladly welcomed…

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J.M. sent me an ebook ARC of her upcoming novel, The Forgotten Tale, and I bought Ghosts to fill in the blanks between the first and second books in the series. It takes place during The Untold Tale, right before Kintyre and Bevel go to  Turn Hall and meet Lucy Piper and Forsyth Turn, and it also connects with events that take place in The Forgotten Tale.

This time when I was talking to J.M. I told her that Ghosts made me sympathize with the little hedgehog (Bevel). I told her that he reminds me of a “grumpy, make, middle-aged Gabrielle” from  Xena: Warrior Princess. “Especially the episode where they’re traveling and you see the unglamorous side of heroes, where they fight about using Gabrielle’s scrolls as toilet paper and her best pan as a weapon. Where you see that they’ve been together long enough to drive each other nuts, but they still stay together because they can’t be apart after so long.” (For the record, I was talking about the episode A Day in the Life) J.M. asked me use that exact analogy in the review, so here you go.

As the storyteller, Bevel has always been the second fiddle to Kintyre. Kintyre is the hero, the one everyone wants to hear about. Bevel is the sidekick, the one who helps fight the extra minions while Kintyre fights the Big Bad, the one who tells the stories to the adoring crowds afterwards so Kintyre doesn’t seem like he’s bragging about what he did and can just not-so-graciously accept the accolades, the one who cleans up all of Kintyre’s messes because he really is pretty self-involved. Ghosts is where Bevel finally gets a voice to tell his own story, even though it is still all about Kintyre. It’s not precisely that Bevel minds–he just wants people to acknowledge his contribution, he doesn’t want to diminish Kintyre’s glory. More importantly, he wants Kintyre to acknowledge what they are to each other. Seventeen years…that’s a long time together. Seventeen years of fighting, of traveling, of being honoured by kings and seduced by beautiful women together. Seventeen years of eating together, sleeping together, bathing together. Of fighting over whose turn it is to do the laundry–well, who took the last clean shirt? Did you remember to buy the supplies? No, it was your turn, and you forgot to buy the flour so I can make bread. Have you seen my dagger? No, not that one, the other one.  Have we passed by this farm before? Yes, we did, and we slept with the farmer’s oldest beautiful daughter, so let’s leave quickly before they find out we’re here again. Seventeen years of you smell like a dead dragon–yeah, well that’s because we killed a dragon and you’re covered in blood too. After that long, either you love someone, or you kill them. Some days the choice between the two may rest on the flip of a coin.

Ghosts  is entertaining as a stand-alone story in a larger universe, but where it shines is as a connection, as a bridge between the novels and as an interlude that serves to give the reader (and the Reader) a deeper understanding of the character that would bog down the action of the novel. It’s a bonus, an extra scene on the DVD–not necessary, but a pleasure, especially to the completist who wants to read EVERYTHING set in that world. And since it’s available now, it’s something to keep you occupied until The Forgotten Tale is released on December 6. If you love the land of Hain, you won’t regret meeting this Ghost.

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I always thought there would be children in my life. I actually want to be a dad. Being an uncle is wonderful, even though I only see the little pests infrequently. I love the squirts, and it’s great to see how much they’ve grown, all that they’ve learned, the ways their personalities and preferences develop between each visit. The youngest of the horde seems to think that “poop” is the funniest damned word the Writer ever Wrote.
I want their chubby, sticky fingers locked around my neck, the sweet kisses, the cuddles, the little feet racing through the hallways shouting, “Da’s back! Da’s here!” There’s something more, something magic in the way they say that to their fathers, different to the way they shout “Uncle!” when I surprise one of my six brothers at home. Almost like “Da” is a Word, instead of just a word, and one that I want to mean me. I would like a home to go back to, I think. A place where it’s warm, and I can sit by the fire and and be adored by everyone around me because I adore them back.

That had always been the plan, anyway.

Grow up, work with Da in the forge, marry a farmer’s daughter, build a croft, raise a brood, and spend the rest of my life shoeing horses and being loved.

But then a handsome lord’s son had come along, and that was the end of those dreams. I could have a wife, a home, the children, if I wanted. But that would mean no Kintyre.

A sudden thought drops into my stomach like a fire-warmed stone: I’m tired.
This is not the grief-born weariness I was feeling this morning. This is something else, something deeper, something that has soaked into my skin and settled in the dark marrow of my bones. This is something that is etched on the very fiber of my muscles, the pull of my tendons, the lining of my stomach. This is something born of Dargan’s careless teasing, yeah, but also the contemplation that his words have caused over the weeks since I was in that tavern with him, both of us a little too far into the keg.

I am tired.

I am tired of walking, tired of traveling, tired of having nowhere to call home, no place to call my own, no pillow and bed waiting at the end of the day, no surety of the next meal. I am tired of following after Kintyre Turn and wanting. I am tired of not having.
I am tired, and I want to stop.

I could pay for somewhere to call my own, true; I’m not much for banks and moneylenders, but I’ve squirreled away the  reward purses I didn’t give over to Mum over the years. I don’t need to build a croft now—I’ve got more than enough clink to buy a cottage, a few acres, some pigs. Probably a calf. Or five. Or ten, really. Right, so there’s actually probably enough to buy a title and the estate that goes with it.

Hells, King Carvel has offered me one often enough. Maybe I could just write to him and tardily accept. Though what on the Writer’s hairy backside I’d do with the trappings and responsibilities of a lord, I don’t know. I wasn’t raised to it. I’d have to hire someone to do all the actual work, and the life of an idle gentleperson is not even close to appealing.

The only thing I am certain about is this: Kin would never live with me.

Even if Kintyre Turn did finally settle down, turn in his sword for a ledger or a plowshare or a guardsman’s cap, it would be with a buxom woman who could gift him with little Turnlings. More likely, it would be with some nobleman’s daughter or simpering princess, and it would be on the coin of a king, or the late Aglar Turn’s estate, where his brother Forsyth would maintain the responsibilities of Master while Kin enjoyed the luxuries with which he’d been raised.

If Kin stopped, that would be it. There would be no room in Kintyre Turn’s life for a Bevel Dom, his questing partner, sword-mate, and dogsbody. And a life for Bevel Dom with no Kintyre Turn in it is a life I’m afraid I might not actually have the strength to live.

I know with the surety of a man who has been in love for half his life with someone who will never be aware of it that I will die of heartbreak, or maybe by my own hand, the day Kin marries someone else.

And Writer, that sounds melodramatic as bloody anything. More fit for my scrolls than my thoughts, but there it is. I jam my fists down harder in my pockets and hunch, chewing on my bottom lip to keep from scowling.

And the bastard is still walking, just a few paces ahead, like his long legs can’t be bothered to shorten his stride for the sake of anything as banal as a short companion. Fine.

So I do as I have always done: I put one foot in front of the other. I shove the weariness away, raise my chin, squint to keep the sun out of my eyes, and follow after Kintyre Turn.

The tiredness can be ignored.

Today I Read…The Dead Kid Detective Agency

Dead Kid Detective AgencyToday I read The Dead Kid Detective Agency, written and illustrated by Evan Munday, the first book in th e Dead Kid Detective Agency series.

October Schwartz hasn’t been having the best luck lately. Her depressed dad has moved them to the tiny town of Stickville, where he’s a teacher at her new high school, only she’s younger than everybody else. She met a really cool girl, who immediately gets the whole school to call her “Zombie Tramp”. Oh, and there are a bunch of dead kids hanging out in the cemetery behind her house, and only October can see them. How’s a girl to write the greatest horror story ever (Two Knives, One Thousand Demons) under these conditions?

Then October’s favourite teacher dies under suspicious circumstances, and no one is willing to listen to October when she says Mr. O’Shea didn’t kill himself. No one, that is, except the dead kids: Cyril, Morna, Tabetha, Kirby, and Derek, children from different times who have one thing in common–none of them know how they died. Together October and the ghosts form the Dead Kid Detective Agency to investigate Mr. O’Shea’s death, and his life. After all, who would want to kill a French teacher? Their investigation leads them all the way back to 1960s Quebec and the Front de liberation du Quebec, and the secrets of the teachers of Stickville.

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I met Evan Munday at last year’s OLA Festival of Trees, where I helped him with his workshop. He was a lively presenter and he made his book sound really interesting, so I picked it up at the Word on the Street Festival and it finally made it to the top of my to-read pile (and by pile I mean mountain range). I’m glad I bought it- Munday tells an entertaining tale that sets the stage well for the following books (the second book Dial M for Morna has been released). Munday also drew the cartoons scattered throughout the book.

The book is set in modern times, but there are pieces of Canadian history throughout the book, since each of the dead kids is from a different era, and Mr. O’Shea’s death is connected to the FLQ. It’s worked in in an interesting way, and adds some humour when the kid from the 1700s tries to drive a car. The point of view switches between October and an omniscient narrator, which can be a bit much when it switches mid-chapter, but it usually adds to the humour. The mystery is well-built and the characters are lively and interesting, especially the dead ones. The living ones include the loyal friends, the mean girls, the good and bad teachers, and the distant relatives required of a young adult novel, but the familiar archetypes never feel stale. (Though just what is Stacey’s last name?)

At 300 pages this isn’t a terribly quick read, but it’s a fun one, even when Munday is sneakily trying to make you learn things–I mean, knowledge of A-ha is important to musical history, so he can probably be forgiven for the other history bits. (Whaddaya mean, who’s A-ha? Kids, sheesh.) A good read for anyone who likes their protagonist to be pop-culture saavy and quick with a quip (Buffy Summers, how I miss you!), as well as those who like their characters to not understand how the metal cart moves without a horse.

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October Schwartz is not dead.

Now, there are plenty of dead folks in this book (you read the title before starting the book, right?), it’s just that October Schwartz does not happen to be one of them. That said, it was her first day at Sticksville Central High School, and she sort of wished she were dead.

October had moved to Sticksville only a month earlier, and she didn’t know anyone yet, unless you counted her dad and maybe the Korean lady who sold her gum at the convenience store. She’d spent the month of August reading in the cemetery behind their house and working on writing her own book. So her first day of high school was even more nerve-wracking than it was for most of the students at Sticksville Central. The way she figured it, everybody was going to hate her. They certainly had in her old town. Why should this one be any different?

There were plenty of reasons for the average high school student to hate her: she wasn’t chubby, but she wasn’t not chubby, which, to those naturally inclined to be unpleasant people, meant she was fat. Also, she wore more black eyeliner than most — barring only silent film actresses, really. Add to that the natural black hair she’d inherited from her mom and her affinity for black clothing, and she was like a walking teen vampire joke waiting to happen.

Today I Read…Heartless

Today I read Heartless, the fourth book in the Parasol Protectorate seriHeartlesses by Gail Carriger. Check out my reviews of the first three books, Soulless, Changeless, and Blameless.

Lady Alexia Tarabotti Maccon is not enjoying her delicate condition. The infant-inconvenience kicks her, disrupts her appetite, and the vampires want to kill her to prevent the baby from being born. It’s been a very trying eight months (particularly for the men in her life: chiefly, her werewolf husband, Lord Conall Maccon; his beta, Professor Lyall; and her close friend, the vampire Lord Akeldama). And now they’ve come up with the most outrageous scheme: to let Lord Akeldama adopt and raise her child! Of course, it would pacify the vampires, and Akeldama is even willing to remodel his second closet into a nursery–you simply can’t ask more of him than to relocate clothing. And the house next door is for sale, so Alexia could stay close. And it will put Biffy, the most recent member of the werewolf pack in close quarters with his former master and, er, special friend, Lord Akeldama, which is nice since Biffy isn’t quite adjusting to his emergency werewolfification as well as could be hoped… Perhaps it isn’t so foolish an idea after all.

Then Alexia and Conall get attacked by poisoned porcupines. A deranged ghost is claiming there is a plot to assassinate the queen. Alexia’s best friend Ivy and her husband have formed an acting troupe, and requested Lady Maccon become their patroness. The French inventor Madame Lefoux has created an enormous mechanical brass octopus and is attacking the home of the vampire queen Countess Nadasdy in an effort to retrieve her son Quesnel. And worst of all, Alexia’s sister Felicity is claiming to have thrown over gowns and gossip for tweed and suffrage, and is moving in with the Maccons.

When people say that Lady Maccon is in an interesting condition, they are not exaggerating in the slightest.

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Alexia continues to be thoroughly incapable of not having an adventure, and proves that just because she is pregnant most certainly does not mean that she will be slowing down in any way. She may be barely able to waddle around, but she will still vigorously investigate the threat against the queen’s life. Even if she does initially mistake which queen the threat is against. We learn a bit more about preternaturals and supernaturals, and why the vampires feel so threatened by Alexia and Conall’s child, as well as about the former Kingair assassination plot which drove Conall away from his original pack.

Biffy the new werewolf is one of my favourite characters, and it’s interesting to see his struggle with his new curse of lycanthropy. He used to be a drone and lover of Lord Akeldama, and had once hoped to become a vampire himself in time. Unfortunately, in the last book Conall was forced to bite him to save his life, and being a werewolf is very different from being a vampire, even though both are immortal. He still loves Akeldama, even though a romance between a vampire and a werewolf is unheard of, and they both know they must part. Still, the heart is harder to convince than the head is.

All of the books in the series follow a formula: mystery, danger, witty banter, but it’s a formula that works very well. Alexia and Conall’s eternal arguments are always entertaining, as are the perfectly proper and extremely absurd Victorian manners. It’s not quote what I would call British humour, as exemplified by Monty Python and Douglas Adams, but it is a genteel cousin. Carriger continues to describe Victorian society, clothing, and manners very well, but it is her more than lively characters (Alexia certainly is) that shine.

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Alexia had only a moment of reprieve to appreciate the macabre sight of a wolf luring away a flock of porcupines like some Aesop’s version of the Pied Piper. A thud resounded on the driver’s box on the outside of the carriage. Something far larger than a porcupine had hit the claviger coachman and knocked him out. Seconds later, for speed was always their strong point, the parasol was bashed out of Alexia’s grasp and the carriage door yanked open.

“Good evening, Lady Maccon.” The vampire tipped his top hat with one hand, holding the door with the other. He occupied the entrance in an ominous, looming manner.

“Ah, how do you do, Lord Ambrose?”

“Tolerably well, tolerably well. It is a lovely night, don’t you find? And how is your”—he glanced at her engorged belly—“health?”

“Exceedingly abundant,” Alexia replied with a self-effacing shrug, “although, I suspect, unlikely to remain so.”

“Have you been eating figs?”

Alexia was startled by this odd question. “Figs?”

“Terribly beneficial in preventing biliousness in newborns, I understand.”

Alexia had been in receipt of a good deal of unwanted pregnancy advice over the last several months, so she ignored this and got on to the business at hand.

“If you don’t feel that it is forward of me to ask, are you here to kill me, Lord Ambrose?” She inched away from the carriage door, reaching for Ethel. The gun lay behind her on the coach seat. She had not had time to put it back into its reticule with the pineapple cut siding. The reticule was a perfect match to her gray plaid carriage dress with green lace trim. Lady Alexia Maccon was a woman who liked to see a thing done properly or not at all.

The vampire tilted his head to one side in acknowledgment. “Sadly, yes. I do apologize for the inconvenience.”

“Oh, really, must you? I’d much rather you didn’t.”

“That’s what they all say.”

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Miss Felicity Loontwill sat in Lord Akeldama’s drawing room in a dress of sensible heathered tweed with only one layer of trim and six buttons, a hat with minimal feathers, and a gray knit shawl with a ruffled collar.

“Oh, my heavens,” exclaimed Lady Maccon upon seeing her sister in such a state. “Felicity, are you quite all right?”

Miss Loontwill looked up. “Why, yes, of course, sister. Why shouldn’t I be?”

“Is there something amiss with the family?”

“You mean, aside from Mama’s predilection for pink?”

Alexia, blinking in flabbergasted shock, lowered herself carefully onto a chair. “But, Felicity, you are wearing last season’s dress!” She lowered her voice, in genuine fear that her sister might be deranged. “Andknitwear.”

“Oh.” Felicity wrapped the ghastly shawl tighter about her neck. “It was necessary.”

Lady Maccon was only further shocked by such an unexpected statement. “Necessary? Necessary!”

“Well, yes, Alexia, do pay attention. Have you always been this frazzled, or is it your unfortunate condition?” Felicity lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Necessary because I have been fraternizing.”

“You have? With whom?” Alexia became suspicious. It was very late at night for an unmarried young lady of quality to be cavorting about unchaperoned, especially one who kept daylight hours and whose parents shunned association with the supernatural set.

“I am wearing tweed. With whom else? Some poor unfortunates of the middle class.”

Lady Maccon would have none of it. “Oh, really, Felicity, you can hardly expect me to believe that you have had anything whatsoever to do with the lower orders.”

“You may choose to believe it or not, sister.”

Alexia wished for a return of her ability to stride about and loom threateningly. Sadly, striding was several months behind her, and should she attempt to loom, she would undoubtedly overbalance and pitch forward in graceless splendor. She settled for glaring daggers at her sibling. “Very well, then, what are you doing here? And how did you know to find me at Lord Akeldama’s residence?”

“Mrs. Tunstell told me where to find you.” Felicity looked with a critical eye at the golden magnificence surrounding her.

“Ivy? How did Ivy know?”

“Madame Lefoux told her.”

“Oh, she did, did she? And how—”

“Apparently someone named Professor Lyall told Madame Lefoux your relocation was taking place this evening and that you would hole up at Lord Akeldama’s, in case there were any orders pending delivery. Have you commissioned a new hat, sister? From that crass foreign female? Are you certain you should be patronizing her establishment after what happened in Scotland? And who is this Professor Lyall person? You haven’t taken up with academics, have you? That cannot possibly be healthy. Education is terribly bad for the nerves, especially for a woman in your state.”

Lady Maccon grappled for some appropriate response.

Felicity added, in a blatant attempt at distraction, “Speaking of which, you have gotten tremendously portly, haven’t you? Is increasing supposed to cause you to swell quite so much as all that?”

Lady Maccon frowned. “I believe I have increased, as it were, to the maximum. You know me—I always insist on seeing a thing done as thoroughly as possible.”

“Well, Mama says to make certain you don’t get angry with anyone. The child will end up looking like him.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes, emotional mimicking they call it, and—”

“Well, that’s no trouble. It will simply end up looking like my husband.”

“But what if it is a female? Wouldn’t that be horrible? She’d be all fuzzy and—”

Felicity would have continued but Lady Maccon lost her patience, a thing she was all too prone to misplacing. “Felicity, why are you visiting me?”

Miss Loontwill hedged. “This is quite the remarkable abode. I never did think I should ever see inside of a vampire hive. And so charming and gleaming and full of exquisite collections. Almost up to my standards.”

“This is not a hive—there is no queen. Not in the technical definition of the word. I will not be so easily detoured, Felicity. Why have you shown up at such a time of night? And why would you undertake such pains to discover my whereabouts?”

Her sister shifted on the brocade settee, her blond head tilted to one side and a small frown creased her perfect forehead. She had not, Alexia noticed, modified her elaborately styled ringlets to match her lowbrow outfit. A row of perfect flat curls were gummed to her forehead in the very latest style.

“You have not paid the family much mind since your return to London.”

Lady Maccon considered this accusation. “You must admit, I was made to feel rather unwelcome prior to my departure.” And that is putting it mildly. Her family had always been a mite petty for her taste, even before they unilaterally decided to expel her from their midst at the most inconvenient time. Since her ill-fated trip to Scotland and subsequent dash across half the known world, she had simply elected to avoid the Loontwills as much as possible. As Lady Maccon, denizen of the night, who fraternized with werewolves; inventors; and, horror of horrors, actors, this was a relatively easy undertaking.

“Yes, but it’s been positively months, sister! I did not think you the type to hold a grudge. Did you know Evylin has renewed her engagement to Captain Featherstonehaugh?”

Lady Maccon only stared at her sister, tapping one slipper lightly on the carpeted floor.

Miss Loontwill blushed, looking toward her and then away again. “I have become”—she paused as though searching for the correct way of phrasing it—“involved.”

Alexia felt a tremor of real fear flutter through her breast. Or is that indigestion? “Oh, no, Felicity. Not with someone unsuitable? Not with someone middle class. Mama would never forgive you!”

Felicity stood and began to wander about the gilded room showing considerable agitation. “No, no, you misconstrue my meaning. I have become involved with my local chapter of the”—she lowered her voice dramatically—“National Society for Women’s Suffrage.”

If Lady Maccon hadn’t already been sitting down, she would have had to sit at such a statement. “You want to vote? You? But you can’t even decide which gloves to wear of a morning.”

“I believe in the cause.”

“Poppycock. You’ve never believed in anything in your whole life, except possibly the reliability of the French to predict next season’s color palette.”

“Well. Still.”

“But, Felicity, really this is so very common. Couldn’t you start up a ladies aid society or an embroidery social?You? Politically minded? I cannot deem such a thing feasible. It has only been five months since I met with you last, not five years, and even then you could not change your character so drastically. A feathered bonnet does not molt so easily as that.”

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Lady Maccon hesitated, wondering exactly how much to reveal. Ivy was a dear little soul, but was she reliable? She decided to buck up and take the plunge. “Ivy, have you ever wondered if there might, just possibly, be something slightly unusual about me?”

“Well, Alexia my dear, I never liked to say, but I have always wondered about your hat preferences. They have struck me as mighty plain.”

Lady Maccon shook her head. The long blue ostrich feather of her not-at-all-plain hat wafted back and forth behind her. “No, not that, I mean . . . Well, dash it, Ivy, there’s nothing for it.”

Mrs. Tunstell gasped in enchanted shock at Lady Maccon’s lowbrow language. “Alexia, you have been fraternizing with werewolves overmuch! Military men can be terribly bad for one’s verbal concatenation.”

Alexia took a deep breath and then blurted out, “I’m preternatural.”

Ivy’s dark eyes widened. “Oh, no! Is it catching?”

Alexia blinked at her.

Ivy donned a sympathetic expression. “Is it a terribly painful condition?”

Lady Maccon continued to blink.

Ivy put a hand to her throat. “Is it the baby? Will you both be well? Should I send for barley water?”

Alexia finally found her voice. “No, preternatural.You might know the term, as in soulless? Or curse-breaker. I have no soul. None at all. As a matter of fact, I can cancel it out in supernatural creatures given half a chance.”

Ivy relaxed. “Oh, that. Yes, I knew. I shouldn’t let it concern you, my dear. I doubt anybody minds.”

“Yes, but . . . Wait, you knew?”

Ivy tut-tutted and shook dark ringlets at her friend in mock amusement. “Of course I knew—have done for simply ages.”

“But you never mentioned a thing to me on the subject.” Alexia was not often flummoxed. She found it an usual sensation and wondered if this was what Ivy felt like most of the time. Her friend’s revelation did, however, give her some degree of confidence in her next move. Despite all her frivolities, Ivy could clearly keep a secret and, it turned out, was more observant than Alexia had previously given her credit for.

“Now, Alexia, I thought you were embarrassed about it. I didn’t want to bring up an uncomfortable personal disability. I have more sensitivity and care for the feelings of others than that!”

“Ah, oh, well. Of course you do. Regardless, as a preternatural, I am currently engaged in some investigations. I was hoping to enlist your aid. It has to do with my husband’s work.” Alexia didn’t want to tell Ivy absolutely everything, but she didn’t want to fib outright either.

“For BUR? Espionage! Oh, really? How terribly glamorous.” Ivy clasped yellow-gloved hands together in delight.

“To which end I was hoping to, well, induct you into a kind of secret society.”

Ivy looked as though she had not heard anything so thrilling in all her life. “Me?” she squeaked. “Really? How marvelous. What’s it called, this secret society?”

Alexia hesitated and then, recalling a phrase her husband had once offered up in the heat of annoyance, suggested tentatively, “The Parasol Protectorate?”

“Oooh, what a perfectly splendid name. So full of ornamentation!” Ivy practically bounced up and down on the lavender settee in her excitement. “Must I make a pledge, or memorize a sacred code of conduct, or engage in some pagan ritual or other?” Ivy had an expectant look on her face that suggested she would be very disappointed if this were not the case.

“Well, yes, of course.” Lady Maccon floundered, trying to come up with something appropriate to the occasion. She couldn’t make Ivy kneel, not in that dress—a periwinkle muslin day gown with an extremely long, tight bodice of the style favored by actresses.

After a moment’s thought, Alexia stood laboriously and waddled over to the umbrella stand to retrieve her parasol. This she opened and placed point downward in the center of the room. Since the room was so very small, this did manage to take up most of the free space. Motioning Ivy to stand, Alexia handed her the handle and said, “Spin the parasol three times and repeat after me: I shield in the name of fashion. I accessorize for one and all. Pursuit of truth is my passion. This I vow by the great parasol.”

Ivy did as she was told, face serious and concentrated. “I shield in the name of fashion. I accessorize for one and all. Pursuit of truth is my passion. This I vow by the great parasol.”

“Now pick the parasol up and raise it, open, to the ceiling. Yes, just like that.”

“Is that all? Shouldn’t the vow be sealed in blood or something like?”

“Oh, do you think?”

Ivy nodded enthusiastically.

Alexia shrugged. “If you insist.” She took back her parasol, snapped it closed, and twisted the handle. Two wickedly sharp spikes projected out of the tip, one of silver, the other of wood.

Ivy inhaled in appreciation.

Lady Maccon flipped the parasol about. Then she took off one of her gloves. After a moment’s hesitation, Ivy did the same. Alexia nicked the pad of her thumb with the silver spike and then did the same for Ivy, who gave a little squeak of alarm. Then Alexia pressed their two thumbs together.

“May the blood of the soulless keep your own soul safe,” intoned Alexia, feeling appallingly melodramatic but knowing Ivy would love this better than anything.

Ivy did. “Oh, Alexia, this is so very stirring! It should be part of a play.”

“I shall have a special parasol made up for you, similar to mine.”

“Oh, no, but thank you for the thought, Alexia. I couldn’t possibly carry an accessory that emitted things all willy-nilly like that. Really, I’m much obliged, but I simply couldn’t bear it. You, of course, manage to carry it off with aplomb, but it would be too vulgar on someone like me.”

Lady Maccon frowned, but knowing her friend’s true weakness, she made another suggestion. “A special hat, perhaps?”

Ivy hesitated.

“Madame Lefoux designed my parasol.”

“Well, perhaps a small hat. One that isn’t too oozy?”

Alexia smiled. “I am convinced that could be arranged.”

Today I Read…Blameless

BlamelessToday I read Blameless by Gail Carriger, the third book in the Parasol Protectorate  series. I’ve previously reviewed the first two books Soulless and Changeless.

Everything is Conall’s fault, blast that man! Just because Alexia is pregnant with an infant-inconvenience, and everyone knows that werewolves can’t have children, her thrice-bedamned husband assumes that she is an adulteress and throws her out of his house. And of course London Society finds out, as they always do, and they side with Conall just because he’s Lord Woolsey. And Alexia has been dismissed from Her Majesty’s Shadow Council. And worst of all, Alexia is forced to once more live with her family. The situation simply cannot be borne! (Although Conall’s reported headfirst dive into drunkenness does make her feel just a tiny bit better.)

So off Alexia goes to France and then Italy, home of the Templars, who have sworn to exterminate the supernatural threat (i.e. their existence). The Templars may hate supernaturals, but perhaps they will be more charitable towards a preternatural such as the soulless Alexia–besides, they did have some sort of association with Alexia’s late father Alessandro Tarabotti, also a preternatural. They may know something about how a werewolf and a preternatural could reproduce together. Shame they’re completely untrustworthy, but at least the food is good.

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It’s nice to see Alexia’s renowned pragmatism break down a little here. She is deservedly furious with Conall for not believing in her truthfulness and fidelity, but she is also very hurt. Conall is likewise hurt and too proud to admit it, preferring to delve into Professor Lyall’s store of formaldehyde to quite thoroughly pickle himself. Fortunately for Alexia’s pride, Conall is the one who has to apologize since he was the one totally in the wrong, and Alexia savours that apology. I am amazed that Alexia manages to refrain from whacking her husband on his furry head with her parasol, so matter how richly he deserves it. Alexia and Conall have a wonderful relationship–they both remain exactly who they are, and they prove in this book that while they can live without each other, they can’t do it well, and they’ll bloody well drive everyone around them crazy until they get back together. When they’ll still drive everyone around them crazy. Oh well, can’t have everything, and the quarreling is really better than the crying and drinking, and how Alexia handles the situation.

We continue to learn about preternaturals and Alessandro Tarabotti’s life, but mysteries remain (of course they do, there’s two more books in the series!). Alexia is determined not to like her infant-inconvenience that has so thoroughly messed up her life (like mother, like daughter apparently), but it is a part of her and of Conall, so she reluctantly loves it even though it is putting her off her food.

It is an entertaining as ever to see the Templars’ reactions to Lady Alexia Tarabotti Maccon, especially when they take her prisoner. She may be only a woman, and a pregnant, aristocratic one, and without any powers like fangs or superhuman strength, but woe betide the one who thinks that makes her weak, stupid, or easy to control! Alexia is an excellent example of the oft-discussed and even more oft-misunderstood strong female character. She is not a strong female character, she is a strong character who happens to be female. She has a lot of flaws (a lot a lot of flaws), but she also has her strengths, and when she makes mistakes she whacks people over the head with her parasol until they are fixed. Now if only all problems were so easily solved…

This book, and this series, are excellent for people who love Victorian satire and characters who kick ass very politely.

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The youngest Miss Loontwill rounded on Alexia, pointing a forkful of egg at her accusingly. “Captain Featherstonehaugh has thrown me over! How do you like that? We received a note only this morning.”

“Captain Featherstonehaugh?” Alexia muttered to herself. “I thought he was engaged to Ivy Hisselpenny and you were engaged to someone else. How confusing.”

“No, no, Evy’s engaged to him now. Or was. How long have you been staying with us? Nearly two weeks? Do pay attention, Alexia dear,” Mrs. Loontwill admonished.

Evylin sighed dramatically. “And the dress is already bought and everything. I shall have to have it entirely made over.”

“He did have very nice eyebrows,” consoled Mrs. Loontwill.

“Exactly,” crowed Evylin. “Where will I find another pair of eyebrows like that? Devastated, I tell you, Alexia. I am utterly devastated. And it is all your fault.”

Evylin, it must be noted, did not look nearly so bothered as one rightly ought over the loss of a fiancé, especially one reputed to possess such heights of eyebrow pre-eminence. She stuffed the egg into her mouth and chewed methodically. She had taken it into her head recently that chewing every bite of food twenty times over would keep her slender. What it did was keep her at the dinner table longer than anyone else.

“He cited philosophical differences, but we all know why he really broke things off.” Felicity waved a gold-edged note at Alexia—a note that clearly contained the good captain’s deepest regrets, a note that, judging from the stains about itself, had received the concerted attention of everyone at the breakfast table, including the kippers.

“I agree.” Alexia calmly sipped her barley water. “Philosophical differences? That cannot be true. You don’t actually have a philosophy about anything, do you, Evylin dear?”

“So you admit responsibility?” Evylin was moved to swallow early so she could launch the attack once more. She tossed her blond curls, only one or two shades removed from the color of her egg.

“Certainly not. I never even met the man.”

“But it is still your fault. Abandoning your husband like that, staying with us instead of him. It is outrageous. People. Are. Talking.” Evylin emphasized her words by stabbing ruthlessly at a sausage.

“People do tend to talk. I believe it is generally considered one of the better modes of communication.”

“Oh, why must you be so impossible? Mama, do something about her.” Evylin gave up on the sausage and went on to a second fried egg.

“You hardly seem very cut up about it.” Alexia watched as her sister chewed away.

“Oh, I assure you, poor Evy is deeply effected. Shockingly overwrought,” said Mrs. Loontwill.

“Surely you mean affected?” Alexia was not above a barb or two where her family was concerned.

At the end of the table, Squire Loontwill, the only one likely to understand a literary joke, softly chortled.

“Herbert,” his wife reprimanded immediately, “don’t encourage her to be pert. Most unattractive quality in a married lady, pertness.” She turned back to Alexia. Mrs. Loontwill’s face, that of a pretty woman who had aged without realizing it, screwed itself up into a grimace Alexia supposed was meant to simulate motherly concern. Instead she looked like a Pekingese with digestive complaints. “Is that what the estrangement with him is over, Alexia? You weren’t… brainy… with him, were you, dear?” Mrs. Loontwill had refrained from referring to Lord Maccon by name ever since her daughter’s marriage, as if by doing so she might hold on to the fact that Alexia had married—a condition believed by most to be highly unlikely right up until the fateful event—without having to remember what she had married. A peer of the realm, it was true, and one of Her Majesty’s finest, to be certain, but also a werewolf. It hadn’t helped that Lord Maccon loathed Mrs. Loontwill and didn’t mind who knew it, including Mrs. Loontwill. Why, Alexia remembered, once, he had even—She stopped herself from further thought of her husband, squashing the memory ruthlessly. Unfortunately, she found that, the agitation of her thoughts had resulted in toast mutilated beyond all hope of consumption. With a sigh, she helped herself to another piece.

“It seems clear to me,” interjected Felicity with an air of finality, “that your presence here, Alexia, has somehow overset Evy’s engagement. Even you cannot argue your way out of that, sister dear.”

Felicity and Evylin were Alexia’s younger half-sisters by birth and were entirely unrelated if one took into account any other factors. They were short, blond, and slender, while Alexia was tall, dark, and, quite frankly, not so very slender. Alexia was known throughout London for her intellectual prowess, patronage of the scientific community, and biting wit. Felicity and Evylin were known for their puffed sleeves. The world, as a result, was generally more peaceful when the three were not living under the same roof.

“And we are all aware of how considered and unbiased your opinion is on the matter, Felicity.” Alexia’s tone was unruffled.

Felicity picked up the scandal section of the Lady’s Daily Chirrup, clearly indicating she wanted nothing more to do with the conversation.

Mrs. Loontwill dove courageously on. “Surely, Alexia, darling, it is high time you returned home to Woolsey? I mean to say, you’ve been with us nearly a week, and, of course, we do love having you, but he is rumored to be back from Scotland now.”

“Bully for him.”

“Alexia! What a shocking thing to say!”

Evylin interjected. “No one has seen him in town, of course, but they say he returned to Woolsey yesterday.”

“Who says?”

Felicity crinkled the gossip section of the paper explanatorily.

“Oh, they.”

“He must be pining for you, my dear,” Mrs. Loontwill resumed the attack. “Pining away, miserable for want of your…” She flailed.

“For want of my what, Mama?”

“Uh, scintillating companionship.”

Alexia snorted—at the dining table. Conall may have enjoyed her bluntness on rare occasion, but if he missed anything, she doubted her wit was top of the list. Lord Maccon was a werewolf of hearty appetites, to say the least. What he would miss most about his wife was located substantially lower than her tongue. An image of her husband’s face momentarily broke her resolve. That look in his eyes the last time they saw each other—so betrayed. But what he believed of her, the fact that he doubted her in such a way, was inexcusable. How dare he leave her remembering some lost-puppy look simply to toy with her sympathies! Alexia Maccon made herself relive the things he had said to her, right then and there. She was never going to go back to that—her mind grappled for a description—that untrusting nitwit!

Lady Alexia Maccon was the type of woman who, if thrown into a briar patch, would start to tidy it up by stripping off all the thorns. Over the past few weeks and throughout the course of an inexcusably foul train journey back from Scotland, she thought she had come to terms with her husband’s rejection of both her and their child. She was finding, however, at the oddest and most irregular moments, that she hadn’t. She would feel the betrayal, like some writhing ache just under her ribs, and become both incredibly hurt and transcendently angry without warning. It was exactly like an acute attack of indigestion—only with one’s finer feelings involved. In her more lucid moments, Alexia reasoned that the cause of this sensation was the unjustness of it all. She was quite accustomed to defending herself for having done something inappropriate, but defending herself when completely innocent made for a dissimilar, and far more frustrating, experience. Not even Bogglington’s Best Darjeeling succeeded in soothing her temper. And if tea wasn’t good enough, well, what was a lady to do? It was not, certainly not, that she still loved the man. That was entirely illogical. But the fact remained that Alexia’s temper was tender about the edges. Her family ought to have recognized the signs.

Felicity snapped the paper closed suddenly, her face an uncharacteristic red color.

“Oh, dear.” Mrs. Loontwill fanned herself with a starched doily. “What now?”

Squire Loontwill glanced up and then took refuge in close examination of his egg.

“Nothing.” Felicity tried to shove the paper under her plate.

Evylin was having none of it. She reached over, snatched it away, and began scanning through it, looking for whatever juicy tittle-tattle had so disturbed her sister.

Felicity nibbled on a scone and looked guiltily at Alexia.

Alexia had a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She finished her barley water with some difficulty and sat back in her chair.

“Oh, golly!” Evylin seemed to have found the troublesome passage. She read it out for all to hear. “‘London was flabbergasted last week when news reached this reporter’s ears that Lady Maccon, previously Alexia Tarabotti, daughter of Mrs. Loontwill, sister to Felicity and Evylin, and stepdaughter to the Honorable Squire Loontwill, had quit her husband’s house, after returning from Scotland without said husband. Speculation as to the reason has been ample, ranging from suspicions as to Lady Maccon’s intimate relationship with the rove vampire Lord Akeldama, to suspected family differences hinted at by the Misses Loontwill’—oh look, Felicity, they mentioned us twice!—‘and certain lower-class social acquaintances. Lady Maccon cut quite a fashionable swath through London society after her marriage’—la, la, la… Ah! Here it picks up again—‘but it has been revealed by sources intimately connected to the noble couple that Lady Maccon is, in fact, in a most delicate condition. Given Lord Maccon’s age, supernatural inclination, and legally recognized postnecrosis status, it must be assumed that Lady Maccon has been indiscreet. While we await physical confirmation, all signs point to The Scandal of the Century.’ ”

Everyone looked at Alexia and began talking at once.

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Lord Conall Maccon was drunk.

He was not drunk in the halfhearted manner of most supernatural creatures, wherein twelve pints of bitter had finally turned the world slightly fuzzy. No, Lord Maccon was rip-roaring, tumble down, without a doubt, pickled beyond the gherkin.

It took an enormous quantity of alcohol to get a werewolf that inebriated. And, reflected Professor Lyall as he steered his Alpha around the side of an inconvenient potshed, it was almost as miraculous a feat to attain such quantities as it was to ingest them. How had Lord Maccon finagled such an arrangement? Not only that, how had he managed to acquire said booze so consistently over the past three days without visiting London or tapping into Woolsey Castle’s well-stocked cellar? Really, thought the Beta in annoyance, such powers of alcoholism could almost be thought supernatural.

Lord Maccon lurched heavily into the side of the potshed. The meat of his left shoulder and upper arm crashed against the oak siding. The entire building swayed on its foundation.

“Pardon,” apologized the earl with a small hiccough, “didna see ya there.”

“For Pete’s sake, Conall,” said his Beta in tones of the deeply put-upon, “how did you manage to get so corned?” He tugged his Alpha away from the abused shed.

“Na drunk,” insisted his lordship, throwing one substantial arm across his Beta’s shoulders and leaning heavily upon it. “Jush a tiny little slightly small bit’a squiffy.” His lordship’s accent got distinctly more Scottish in times of great stress, strong emotion, or, apparently, under the influence of vast amounts of liquid intoxicants.

They left the safety of the potshed.

The earl pitched forward suddenly, his grip on his Beta the only thing that managed to keep him upright. “Whoa! Watch that bit’o ground there, would ya? Tricky, tricky, jumps right up at a man.”

“Where did you acquire the alcohol?” Professor Lyall asked again as he tried valiantly to get his Alpha back on track across the wide lawn of Woolsey’s extensive grounds, toward the castle proper. It was like trying to steer a steamboat through a tub of turbulent molasses. A normal human would have buckled under the strain, but Lyall was lucky enough to have supernatural strength to call upon at times of great difficulty. Lord Maccon wasn’t simply big; he was also tremendously solid, like a walking, talking Roman fortification.

“And how did you get all the way out here? I distinctly remember tucking you into bed before leaving your room last night.” Professor Lyall spoke very clearly and precisely, not entirely sure how much was seeping into his Alpha’s thick skull.

Lord Maccon’s head bobbed slightly as he attempted to follow Professor Lyall’s words.

“Went for a wee nightly run. Needed peace and quiet. Needed air in my fur. Needed fields under my paws. Needed, oh I canna—hic—explain… needed the company of hedgehogs.”

“And did you find it?”

“Find what? No hedgehogs. Stupid hedgehogs.” Lord Maccon tripped over a daphne bush, one of the many that lined the pathway leading up to a side entrance of the house. “Who bloody well put that there?”

“Peace, did you find peace?”

Lord Maccon stopped and drew himself upright, straightening his spine and throwing his shoulders back. It was an action driven by memory of military service. It caused him to positively tower over his second. Despite his ramrod-straight back, the Alpha managed to sway side to side, as if the aforementioned molasses-bound steamboat was now weathering a violent storm.

“Do I,” he enunciated very carefully, “look like I have found peace?”

Professor Lyall had nothing to say in response to that.

“Exactly!” Lord Maccon made a wide and flailing gesture. “She is wedged”—he pointed two thick fingers at his head as though they formed a pistol—“here.” Then rammed them at his chest. “And here. Canna shake her. Stickier than”—his powers of metaphor failed him—“stickier than… cold porridge getting all gloopy on the side of a bowl,” he finally came up with triumphantly.

Professor Lyall wondered what Lady Alexia Maccon would say to being compared to such a pedestrian foodstuff. She would probably compare her husband to something even less agreeable, like haggis.

Lord Maccon looked at his Beta with wide, soulful eyes, the color of which changed with his mood. Currently they were a watered-down caramel and highly unfocused. “Why’d she have ta go an do a thing like that?”

“I don’t think she did.” Professor Lyall had been meaning to have this out with his Alpha for some time. He had simply hoped the discussion would occur during one of Lord Maccon’s rare moments of sobriety.

“Well, then, why’d she lie about it?”

“No. I mean to say, I do not believe she was lying.” Lyall stood his ground. A Beta’s main function within the werewolf pack was to support his Alpha in all things—publicly, and to question him as much as possible—privately.

Lord Maccon cleared his throat and looked at his Beta in myopic seriousness from under fierce eyebrows. “Randolph, this may come as a shock, but I am a werewolf.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Two hundred and one years of age.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Pregnancy, under such circumstances, you must understand, is not possible.”

“Certainly not for you, my lord.”

“Thank you, Randolph, that is verra helpful.”

Professor Lyall had thought it rather funny, but he’d never been much good at humor. “But, sir, we understand so very little about the preternatural state. And the vampires never did like the idea of you marrying her. Could it be they knew something?”

“Vampires always know something.”

“About what might happen. About the possibility of a child, I mean.”

“Poppycock! The howlers would have said somewhat to me at the outset.”

“Howlers do not always remember everything, do they? They cannot remember what happened to Egypt, for one.”

“God-Breaker Plague? You saying Alexia is pregnant with the God-Breaker Plague?”

Lyall didn’t even dignify that with an answer. The God-Breaker Plague was the werewolf moniker for the fact that in Egypt supernatural abilities were rendered negligible. It could not, by any stretch of the imagination, act as a paternal agent.

They finally made it to the castle, and Lord Maccon was momentarily distracted by the Herculean task of trying to climb steps.

“You know,” continued the earl in outraged hurt once he’d attained the small landing, “I groveled for that woman. Me!” He glared at Professor Lyall. “An’ you told me to!”

Professor Lyall puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. It was like trying to have a conversation with a distracted and very soggy scone. Every time he pushed in one direction the earl either oozed or crumbled. If he could simply get Lord Maccon off the sauce he might be able to talk some sense into him. The Alpha was notoriously emotional and heavy-handed in these matters, prone to flying off the cogs, but he could usually be brought around to reason eventually. He wasn’t all that dim.

Professor Lyall knew Lady Maccon’s character; she might be capable of betraying her husband, but if she had done so, she would admit to it openly. Thus, logic dictated she was telling the truth. Lyall was enough of a scientist to conclude from this that the currently accepted gospel truth, that supernatural creatures could not impregnate mortal women, was flawed. Even Lord Maccon, pigheaded and hurt, could be convinced of this line of reasoning eventually. After all, the earl could not possibly want to believe Alexia capable of infidelity. At this point, he was simply wallowing.

“Don’t you think it’s about time you sobered up?”

“Wait, lemme ponder that.” Lord Maccon paused, as though giving the matter deep consideration. “Nope.”

Today I Read…Changeless

Today I read Changeless, the second Parasol Protectorate book by Gail Carriger. Her website is here, and you can find all kinds of information about steampunk, Victorian London, and extra bits about Alexia and her friends. You can also find my review of the first book in the series, Souless, here. Print

Alexia Tarrabotti’s recent marriage to Lord Conall Maccon, the Alpha Werewolf of the Woolsey pack, has brought about a lot of changes in her life: her very welcome distancing from her not-so-loving family (unfortunately, it’s not a long enough distance); her appointment by the Queen to the secret Shadow Council, royal advisors on all supernatural matters; and of course, an often naked, commonly furry, and always infuriating husband in her bed. Said husband has suddenly run off (literally–he turned wolf and ran) all the way to Scotland of all barbarous places to visit his former pack–the ones he abandoned more than 20 years ago after they betrayed him. And he does this right when there is a mysterious plague spreading across Europe affecting supernaturals–ghosts permanently lose their tether to the mortal world, and vampires and werewolves lose their special abilities and become human.

Now the new Lady Maccon is off to dreary, wet, uncivilized Scotland via floating dirigible to find her missing (all right, and somewhat missed) husband, complete with efficient butler, impetuous valet, stylish French maid, annoying half-sister, atrociously-behatted best friend, and a French lesbian inventor. Who just made her the most wonderful new parasol, at Conall’s behest. A lot can be forgiven of a man who knows you well enough to commission a weaponized parasol.

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This is an excellent chapter in the continuing adventures of Lady Alexia Tarrabotti Maccon. We find out more about why Conall Maccon left his previous pack, and about how preternaturals affect supernaturals. We meet more fascinating characters, including the Kingair pack, Major Channing Channing of the Chesterfield Channings, and of course Madame Genevieve Lefoux, the brilliant inventor who dresses like a man and runs a hat shop with her young son and her ghostly aunt. And we get the setup for the next book, when Alexia is revealed to be pregnant, despite the fact that everybody knows werewolves can’t have children. And Everybody Knows is always right, right? Right.

The God-Breaker plague is interesting as the mystery of the book, the way that the Order of the Brass Octopus abducting supernaturals was in the first book. Carriger does a good job of treating the series like a television mini-series–each book has a stand-alone problem that needs to be solved, while gradually building an arc that spans all five novels. Alexia’s world has greatly expanded since her marriage to Conall, and the reader follows her along on her first dirigible ride, her first trip out of England, her first meeting with the Kingair werewolf pack, including their leader, Conall’s great-great-great-granddaughter Lady Sidheag Maccon, her first serious fight with Conall (not counting their constant smaller quarrels), and of course her first pregnancy. This book is particularly well-named, since everything changes.

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“They are what?”

Lord Conall Maccon, Earl of Woolsey, was yelling. Loudly. This was to be expected from Lord Maccon, who was generally a loud sort of gentleman—the ear-bleeding combination of lung capacity and a large barrel chest.

Alexia Maccon, Lady Woolsey, muhjah to the queen, Britain’s secret preternatural weapon extraordinaire, blinked awake from a deep and delicious sleep.

“Wasn’t me,” she immediately said, without having the barest hint of an idea as to what her husband was carrying on about. Of course, it usually was her, but it would not do to fess up right away, regardless of whatever it was that had his britches in a bunch this time. Alexia screwed her eyes shut and squirmed farther into the warmth of down-stuffed blankets. Couldn’t they argue about it later?

“What do you mean gone?” The bed shook slightly with the sheer volume behind Lord Maccon’s yell. The amazing thing was that he wasn’t nearly as loud as he could be when he really put his lungs into it.

“Well, I certainly did not tell them to go,” denied Alexia into her pillow. She wondered who “they” were. Then she came about to the realization, taking a fluffy-cottony sort of pathway to get there, that he wasn’t yelling at her but at someone else. In their bedroom.

Oh dear.

Unless he was yelling at himself.

Oh dear.

“What, all of them?”

Alexia’s scientific side wondered idly at the power of sound waves—hadn’t she heard of a recent Royal Society pamphlet on the subject?

“All at once?”

Lady Maccon sighed, rolled toward the hollering, and cracked one eyelid. Her husband’s large naked back filled her field of vision. To see any more, she’d have to lever herself upright. Since that would probably expose her to more cold air, she declined to lever. She did, however, observe that the sun was barely down. What was Conall doing awake and aloud so freakishly early? For, while her husband roaring was not uncommon, its occurrence in the wee hours of late afternoon was. Inhuman decency dictated that even Woolsey Castle’s Alpha werewolf remain quiet at this time of day.

“How wide of a radius, exactly? It canna have extended this far.”

Oh dear, his Scottish accent had put in an appearance. That never bode well for anyone.

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Alexia threw her head back and yelled, “Tunstell!” She had not quite the lung capacity to match that of her massive husband, but neither was she built on the delicate-flower end of the feminine spectrum. Alexia’s father’s ancestors had once conquered an empire, and it was when Lady Maccon yelled that people realized how that was accomplished.

Tunstell came bouncing over, a handsome, if gangly, ginger fellow with a perpetual grin and a certain carelessness of manner that most found endearing and everybody else found exasperating.

“Tunstell,” Alexia said calmly and reasonably, she thought, “why are there tents on my front lawn?”

Tunstell, Lord Maccon’s valet and chief among the clavigers, looked about in his chipper way, as if to say that he had not noticed anything amiss and was now delighted to find that they had company. Tunstell was always chirpy. It was his greatest character flaw. He was also one of the few residents of Woolsey Castle who managed to remain entirely unfazed by, or possibly unaware of, either Lord or Lady Maccon’s wrath. This was his second-greatest character flaw.

“He didn’t warn you?” The claviger’s freckled face was flushed with exertion from helping to raise one of the tents.

“No, he most certainly did not.” Alexia tapped the silver tip of her parasol on the front stoop.

Tunstell grinned. “Well, my lady, the rest of the pack has returned.” He flipped both hands at the canvas-ridden chaos before her, waggling his fingers dramatically. Tunstell was an actor of some note—everything he did was dramatic.

“Tunstell,” said Alexia carefully, as though to a dim child, “this would indicate that my husband possessed a very, very big pack. There are no werewolf Alphas in England who can boast a pack of such proportions.”

“Oh, well, the rest of the pack brought the rest of the regiment with them,” explained Tunstell in a conspiratorial way, as though he and Alexia were partners engaged in the most delightful lark.

“I believe it is customary for the pack and fellow officers of a given regiment to separate upon returning home. So that, well, one doesn’t wake up to find hundreds of soldiers camping on one’s lawn.”

“Well, Woolsey has always done things a little differently. Having the biggest pack in England, we’re the only ones who split the pack for military service, so we keep the Coldsteam Guards together for a few weeks when we get home. Builds solidarity.” Tunstell gestured expansively once more, his fine white hands weaving about in the air, and nodded enthusiastically.

“And does this solidarity have to occur on Woolsey’s front lawn?” Tap tap tap went the parasol. The Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR) was experimenting with new weaponry of late. At the disbanding of the Hypocras Club several months previous, a small compressed steam unit had been discovered. It apparently heated continually until it burst. Lord Maccon had shown it to his wife. It made a ticking noise just prior to explosion, rather like that of Alexia’s parasol at this precise moment. Tunstell was unaware of this correlation or he might have proceeded with greater caution. On the other hand, being Tunstell, he might not.

“Yes, isn’t it jolly?” crowed Tunstell.

“But why?” Tap tap tap.

“It is where we have always camped,” said a new voice, apparently belonging to someone equally unfamiliar with the ticking, exploding steam device.

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Ivy was immediately entranced by the ugliest of the bunch: a canary-yellow felt toque trimmed with black currants, black velvet ribbon, and a pair of green feathers that looked like antennae off to one side.

“Oh, not that one!” said both Alexia and another voice at the same time when Ivy reached to pull it off the wall.

Ivy’s hand dropped to her side, and both she and Lady Maccon turned to see the most remarkable-looking woman emerging from a curtained back room.

Alexia thought, without envy, that this was quite probably the most beautiful female she had ever seen. She had a lovely small mouth, large green eyes, prominent cheekbones, and dimples when she smiled, which she was doing now. Normally Alexia objected to dimples, but they seemed to suit this woman. Perhaps because they were offset by her thin angular frame and the fact that she had her brown hair cut unfashionably short, like a man’s.

Ivy gasped upon seeing her.

This was not because of the hair. Or, not entirely because of it. This was because the woman was also dressed head to shiny boots in perfect and impeccable style—for a man. Jacket, pants, and waistcoat were all to the height of fashion. A top hat perched upon that scandalously short hair, and her burgundy cravat was tied into a silken waterfall. Still, there was no pretense at hiding her femininity. Her voice, when she spoke, was low and melodic, but definitely that of a woman.

Alexia picked up a pair of burnt umber kid gloves from a display basket. They were as soft as butter to the touch, and she looked at them to stop herself from staring at the woman.

“I am Madame Lefoux. Welcome to Chapeau de Poupe. How may I serve you fine ladies?” She had the hint of a French accent, but only the barest hint, utterly unlike Angelique, who could never seem to handle the “th” sound.

Ivy and Alexia curtsied with a little tilt to their heads, the latest fashion in curtsies, designed to show that the neck was unbitten. One wouldn’t want to be thought a drone without the benefit of vampiric protection. Madame Lefoux did the same, although it was impossible to tell if her neck was bitten under that skillfully tied cravat. Alexia noted with interest that she wore two cravat pins: one of silver and one of wood. Madame Lefoux might keep night hours, but she was cautious about it.

Lady Maccon said, “My friend Miss Hisselpenny has recently become engaged and is in dire need of a new hat.” She did not introduce herself, not yet. Lady Maccon was a name best kept in reserve.

Madame Lefoux took in Ivy’s copious flowers and feather bees. “Yes, this is quite evident. Do walk this way, Miss Hisselpenny. I believe I have something over here that would perfectly suit that dress.”

Ivy dutifully trotted after the strangely clad woman. She gave Alexia a look over her shoulder that said, as clearly as if she had the gumption to say it aloud, what the deuce is she wearing?

Alexia wandered over to the offensive yellow toque she and Madame Lefoux had so hastily warned Ivy off of. It completely contrasted with the general sophisticated tenor set by the other hats. Almost as though it wasn’t meant to be purchased.

As the extraordinary patroness seemed to be thoroughly distracted by Ivy (well, who wouldn’t be?), Alexia used the handle of her parasol to gently lift the toque and peek underneath. It was at that precise moment she deduced why it was her husband had sent her to Chapeau de Poupe.

There was a hidden knob, disguised as a hook, secreted under the hideous hat. Alexia quickly replaced the hat and turned away to begin innocently wandering about the shop, pretending interest in various accessories. She began to notice that there were other little hints as to a second nature for Chapeau de Poupe: scrape marks on the floor near a wall thatseemed to have no door and several gas lights that were not lit. Alexia would wager good money that they were not lights at all.

Lady Maccon would not have thought to be curious, of course, had her husband not been so insistent she visit the establishment. The rest of the shop was quite unsuspicious, being the height of la mode, with hats appealing enough to hold even her unstylish awareness. But with the scrapes and the hidden knob, Alexia became curious, both about the shop and its owner. Lady Maccon might be soulless, but the liveliness of her mind was never in question.

She wandered over to where Madame Lefoux had actually persuaded Miss Hisselpenny to don a becoming little straw bonnet with upturned front, decorated about the crown with a few classy cream flowers and one graceful blue feather.

“Ivy, that looks remarkably well on you,” she praised.

“Thank you, Alexia, but don’t you find it a tad reserved? I’m not convinced it quite suits.”

Lady Maccon and Madame Lefoux exchanged a look.

“No, I do not. It is nothing like that horrible yellow thing at the back you insisted on at first. I went to take a closer look, you know, and it really is quite ghastly.”

Madame Lefoux glanced at Alexia, her beautiful face suddenly sharp and her dimples gone.

Alexia smiled, all teeth and not nicely. One couldn’t live around werewolves and not pick up a few of their mannerisms. “It cannot possibly be your design?” she said mildly to the proprietress.

“The work of an apprentice, I do assure you,” replied Madame Lefoux with a tiny French shrug. She put a new hat onto Ivy’s head, one with a few more flowers.

Miss Hisselpenny preened.

“Are there any more… like it?” wondered Alexia, still talking about the ugly yellow hat.

“Well, there is that riding hat.” The proprietress’s voice was wary.

Lady Maccon nodded. Madame Lefoux was naming the hat nearest to the scrape marks Alexia had observed on the floor. They understood one another.

Today I Read…Soulless

SoullessToday I read Soulless by Gail Carriger, the first Parasol Protectorate book.

Miss Alexia Tarabotti is quite resigned to life as a spinster. After all, she is quite old–more than twenty-six. She is unfashionably dark, owing to her heritage from her equally unfashionable Italian father, enjoys reading scientific treatises, and worst of all she is unacceptably headstrong and quarrelsome, particularly with the Earl of Woolsey, who once described Alexia as being “about as covert as a sledgehammer.” Not that Lord Maccon has any room to talk, what with his running around as the head of the local werewolf pack and the director of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry.

Alexia has one final peculiarity–she is a preternatural, a being born without a soul. Her touch can banish ghosts and turn vampires and werewolves human. This unwelcome gift becomes quite useful when she is very rudely attacked by a starving vampire at a ball. Soon Alexia discovers that vampires are going missing from all over London–odd, given the tight control that the vampire queen Countess Nadasdy usually keeps over her hive. And she keeps finding the sign of a brass octopus everywhere. Her efforts to investigate keep her running into Lord Maccon, who behaves in a most scandalous manner, placing his hands on unmentionable portions of her anatomy, kissing her on the mouth, asking her to marry him, and of course requiring her help to catch the rogue scientists who have been capturing and killing supernaturals. It’s enough to make a normal well-bred young lady faint. Alexia, on the other hand, grabs her trusty parasol and wades right in.

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This book demonstrates that proper behaviour is very much what you make of it. Alexia is a well-bred young lady with an…adequate…reputation; while she is odd, she is not so odd as to be cut from London Society. Her strength of personality and preternatural practicality balance with her enormously unsupportive family to give her a life that really isn’t that bad. Gail Carriger takes the supposedly passionless Victorian society and populates it with a cast of highly colorful characters, all of whom are quite determined not to fit into a proper cookie-cutter role in Society.

I love Lord Akeldama, vampire, Alexia’s close friend, fashionista (or whatever the male equivalent is), top-shelf intelligence gatherer, and possessor of a beautiful stable of well-dressed young men to serve his every whim. Long-suffering Professor Lyall, so quietly competent while dealing with his impossible alpha Lord Maccon and having to point out that Alexia is not, in fact, a female werewolf and therefore cannot be expected to react as one. Devoted Ivy, Alexia’s best friend, always willing to listen, even to Alexia’s complaints about her atrocious choice in hats. Mrs. Loontwill, Evylin, and Felicity, Alexia’s mother and half-sisters, all so blonde and pretty and well-behaved and cruel and perfectly useless. And of course big, rough, rude Lord Maccon, who after two hundred years as an alpha werewolf has finally found a mortal woman who can slap him on the nose and scold him for being a bad puppy.

Carriger puts in a wonderful amount of detail about clothing and parties and the time period, and writes an interesting mystery, but the characters are what truly shine in this excellent start to the series. While it is not really a comedic novel, I defy any reader to make it through one of Alexia and Lord Maccon’s well-matched duels of wits without laughing out loud.

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Miss Alexia Tarabotti was not enjoying her evening. Private balls were never more than middling amusements for spinsters, and Miss Tarabotti was not the kind of spinster who could garner even that much pleasure from the event. To put the pudding in the puff: she had retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire. She glared at the vampire.

For his part, the vampire seemed to feel that their encounter had improved his ball experience immeasurably. For there she sat, without escort, in a low-necked ball gown.

In this particular case, what he did not know could hurt him. For Miss Alexia had been born without a soul, which, as any decent vampire of good blooding knew, made her a lady to avoid most assiduously.

Yet he moved toward her, darkly shimmering out of the library shadows with feeding fangs ready. However, the moment he touched Miss Tarabotti, he was suddenly no longer darkly doing anything at all. He was simply standing there, the faint sounds of a string quartet in the background as he foolishly fished about with his tongue for fangs unaccountably mislaid.

Miss Tarabotti was not in the least surprised; soullessness always neutralized supernatural abilities. She issued the vampire a very dour look. Certainly, most daylight folk wouldn’t peg her as anything less than a standard English prig, but had this man not even bothered to read the vampire’s official abnormality roster for London and its greater environs?

The vampire recovered his equanimity quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Physical contact broken, his fangs reappeared. Clearly not the sharpest of prongs, he then darted forward from the neck like a serpent, diving in for another chomp.

“I say!” said Alexia to the vampire. “We have not even been introduced!”

Miss Tarabotti had never actually had a vampire try to bite her. She knew one or two by reputation, of course, and was friendly with Lord Akeldama. Who was not friendly with Lord Akeldama? But no vampire had ever actually attempted to feed on her before!

So Alexia, who abhorred violence, was forced to grab the miscreant by his nostrils, a delicate and therefore painful area, and shove him away. He stumbled over the fallen tea trolley, lost his balance in a manner astonishingly graceless for a vampire, and fell to the floor. He landed right on top of a plate of treacle tart.

Miss Tarabotti was most distressed by this. She was particularly fond of treacle tart and had been looking forward to consuming that precise plateful. She picked up her parasol. It was terribly tasteless for her to be carrying a parasol at an evening ball, but Miss Tarabotti rarely went anywhere without it. It was of a style entirely of her own devising: a black frilly confection with purple satin pansies sewn about, brass hardware, and buckshot in its silver tip.

She whacked the vampire right on top of the head with it as he tried to extract himself from his newly intimate relations with the tea trolley. The buckshot gave the brass parasol just enough heft to make a deliciously satisfying thunk.

“Manners!” instructed Miss Tarabotti.

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“Mark my words, I will use something much, much stronger than smelling salts,” came a growl in Miss Tarabotti’s left ear. The voice was low and tinged with a hint of Scotland. It would have caused Alexia to shiver and think primal monkey thoughts about moons and running far and fast, if she’d had a soul. Instead it caused her to sigh in exasperation and sit up.

“And a good evening to you, too, Lord Maccon. Lovely weather we are having for this time of year, is it not?” She patted at her hair, which was threatening to fall down without the hair stick in its proper place. Surreptitiously, she looked about for Lord Conall Maccon’s second in command, Professor Lyall. Lord Maccon tended to maintain a much calmer temper when his Beta was present. But, then, as Alexia had come to comprehend, that appeared to be the main role of a Beta—especially one attached to Lord Maccon.

“Ah, Professor Lyall, how nice to see you again.” She smiled in relief.

Professor Lyall, the Beta in question, was a slight, sandy-haired gentleman of indeterminate age and pleasant disposition, as agreeable, in fact, as his Alpha was sour. He grinned at her and doffed his hat, which was of first-class design and sensible material. His cravat was similarly subtle, for, while it was tied expertly, the knot was a humble one.

“Miss Tarabotti, how delicious to find ourselves in your company once more.” His voice was soft and mild-mannered.

“Stop humoring her, Randolph,” barked Lord Maccon. The fourth Earl of Woolsey was much larger than Professor Lyall and in possession of a near-permanent frown. Or at least he always seemed to be frowning when he was in the presence of Miss Alexia Tarabotti, ever since the hedgehog incident (which really, honestly, had not been her fault). He also had unreasonably pretty tawny eyes, mahogany-colored hair, and a particularly nice nose. The eyes were currently glaring at Alexia from a shockingly intimate distance.

“Why is it, Miss Tarabotti, every time I have to clean up a mess in a library, you just happen to be in the middle of it?” the earl demanded of her.

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Alexia looked uncomfortable. “I know!” She was wondering how a hive might react to a preternatural in their midst. Not very kindly, she suspected. She worried her lower lip. “I simply must speak with Lord Akeldama.”

Miss Hisselpenny looked, if possible, even more worried. “Oh really, must you? He is so very outrageous.” Outrageous was a very good way of describing Lord Akeldama. Alexia was not afraid of outrageousness any more than she was afraid of vampires, which was good because Lord Akeldama was both.

He minced into the room, teetering about on three-inch heels with ruby and gold buckles. “My darling, darling Alexia.” Lord Akeldama had adopted use of her given name within minutes of their first meeting. He had said that he just knew they would be friends, and there was no point in prevaricating. “Darling!” He also seemed to speak predominantly in italics. “How perfectly, deliciously, delightful of you to invite me to dinner. Darling.”

Miss Tarabotti smiled at him. It was impossible not to grin at Lord Akeldama; his attire was so consistently absurd. In addition to the heels, he wore yellow checked gaiters, gold satin breeches, an orange and lemon striped waistcoat, and an evening jacket of sunny pink brocade. His cravat was a frothy flowing waterfall of orange, yellow, and pink Chinese silk, barely contained by a magnificently huge ruby pin. His ethereal face was powdered quite unnecessarily, for he was already completely pale, a predilection of his kind. He sported round spots of pink blush on each cheek like a Punch and Judy puppet. He also affected a gold monocle, although, like all vampires, he had perfect vision.

With fluid poise, he settled himself on the settee opposite Alexia, a small neatly laid supper table between them.

Miss Tarabotti had decided to host him, much to her mother’s chagrin, alone in her private drawing room. Alexia tried to explain that the vampire’s supposed inability to enter private residences uninvited was a myth based upon their collective obsession with proper social etiquette, but her mother refused to believe her. After some minor hysterics, Mrs. Loontwill thought better of her objections to the arrangement. Realizing that the event would occur whether she willed it or no, Alexia being assertive—Italian blood— she hastily took the two younger girls and Squire Loontwill off to an evening card party at Lady Blingchester’s. Mrs. Loontwill was very good at operating on the theory that what she did not know could not hurt her, particularly regarding Alexia and the supernatural.

So Alexia had the house to herself, and Lord Akeldama’s entrance was appreciated by no one more important than Floote, the Loontwills’ long-suffering butler. This caused Lord Akeldama distress, for he sat so dramatically and posed with such grace, that he clearly anticipated a much larger audience. The vampire took out a scented handkerchief and bopped Miss Tarabotti playfully on the shoulder with it. “I hear, my little sugarplum, that you were a naughty, naughty girl at the duchess’s ball last night.”

Lord Akeldama might look and act like a supercilious buffoon of the highest order, but he had one of the sharpest minds in the whole of London. The Morning Post would pay half its weekly income for the kind of information he seemed to have access to at any time of night. Alexia privately suspected him of having drones among the servants in every major household, not to mention ghost spies tethered to key public institutions.

Miss Tarabotti refused to give her guest the satisfaction of asking how he knew of the previous evening’s episode. Instead she smiled in what she hoped was an enigmatic manner and poured the champagne.

Lord Akeldama never drank anything but champagne. Well, that is to say, except when he was drinking blood. He was reputed to have once said that the best drink in existence was a blending of the two, a mix he referred to fondly as a Pink Slurp.

“You know why I invited you over, then?” Alexia asked instead, offering him a cheese swizzle.

Lord Akeldama waved a limp wrist about dismissively before taking the swizzle and nibbling its tip. “La, my dearest girl, you invited me because you could not bear to be without my company a single moment longer. And I shall be cut to the very quick of my extensive soul if your reason is anything else.”

Miss Tarabotti waved a hand at the butler. Floote issued her a look of mild disapproval and vanished in search of the first course.

“That is, naturally, exactly why I invited you. Besides which I am certain you missed me just as much, as we have not seen each other in an age. I am convinced that your visit has absolutely nothing to do with an avid curiosity as to how I managed to kill a vampire yesterday evening,” she said mildly.