Today I Read…Etiquette & Espionage

ettiquette & espionageToday I read Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, Book the First of the Finishing School series. This series is set in the same universe as the Parasol Protectorate series which I have previously reviewed.

Sophronia Angelina Temminnick is the absolute despair of her mother. She can’t curtsey, embroider, or properly eavesdrop on a private conversation without revealing her presence and absolutely destroying the trifle. Clearly the only possible solution is to send her to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

What Sophronia soon learns at school, however, is that she is not to learn how to finish her education in the genteel arts so mush as she is to learn how to finish others. Etiquette, embroidery, dressing, dancing, and flirting are only half of the curriculum–the other half is occupied with activities such as espionage, murder, mayhem, and all other sorts of useful things for a young lady of quality to know. After all, one never knows when one may be called upon to poison an enemy of the state, and think of the embarrassment if one’s victim died during the soup course instead of the desert! With her new friend Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott and her Pillover of a little brother, Sophronia will learn to deal with being accosted by flywaymen, how to properly ride side-saddle on a werewolf wearing a top hat, and how to sneak around the school whilst floating a hundred feet above the earth. And perhaps she’ll even save the day and rescue the mysterious prototype–as long as she can do it in the correct dress, of course. One must maintain appearances, after all.

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I originally read Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series last year because steampunk has been in vogue among the nerdy circles for the last few years, and I kept seeing the books around, and my friend Sheena had spoken highly of them (she’s fairly reliable as long as you’re not discussing Stargate, because she is very very very very very wrong about Jack and Sam. Just plain wrong. The end.). I loved the books, and I was pleased when I found out that Carriger was writing a new prequel series set in the same universe. We meet the young Sidheag Maccon and Professor Beatrice Lefoux and little Vieve before Alexia comes across them many years hence. Sophronia has a spirit similar to Alexia while being her own character, one younger and easier to mold into the semblance of a lady without being devoid of a taste for adventure. One wonders if Alexia might have had a slightly easier time creating her Parasol Protectorate had she had the benefit of an education at a place like Mademoiselle Geraldine’s.

This is a lovely addition to the Parasol Protectorate universe, but it isn’t really necessary to read those first, since Etiquette & Espionage does a fine job of introducing the reader to the world on its own. It’s an excellent YA steampunk book, since Alexia and Conall’s relationship in the Parasol Protectorate books might be a little much for younger readers, although true to steampunk-era language it’s never extremely explicit. This book is a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to the next book Curtsies & Conspiracies.

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Across from Sophronia’s mother, sipping tea, sat an elegant lady wearing a sour expression and a large hat. She looked like exactly the kind of woman one would expect to be a vampire drone.

“Here is Miss Sophronia, madam,” said Frowbritcher from the doorway, not bothering to transfer tracks. He glided off, probably to marshal forces to clean the parlor.

“Sophronia! What did you do to poor Mrs. Barnaclegoose? She left here in a dreadful huff and—oh, simply look at you! Mademoiselle, please excuse my daughter’s appearance. I’d tell you it was an aberration, but, sadly, it’s all too common. Such a troublesome child.”

The stranger gave Sophronia a prim look that made her feel about six years old. She was painfully conscious of her custardy state. No one would ever describe Sophronia as elegant, whereas this woman was every inch a lady. Sophronia had never before considered how powerful that could be. The strange woman was also offensively beautiful, with pale skin and dark hair streaked with gray. It was impossible to discern her age, for, despite the gray, her face was young. She was perfectly dressed in a sort of spiky lace traveling gown with a massive skirt and velvet trim that was much more elegant than anything Sophronia had ever seen in her life. Her mother was more a follower of trends than a purveyor of fine taste. This woman was truly stylish.

Despite her beauty, she looks, thought Sophronia, a little like a crow.She stared down at her feet and tried to come up with an excuse for her behavior, other than spying on people. “Well, I simply wanted to see how it worked, and then there was this—”

Her mother interrupted. “How it worked? What kind of question is that for a young lady to ask? How often have I warned you against fraternizing with technology?”

Sophronia wondered if that was a rhetorical question and began counting up the number of times just in case it wasn’t. Her mother turned back to their guest.

“Do you see what I mean, mademoiselle? She’s a cracking great bother.”

“What? Mumsy!” Sophronia was offended. Never before had her mother used such language in polite company.

“Silence, Sophronia.”

“But—”

“Do you see, Mademoiselle Geraldine? Do you see what I must endure? And on a daily basis. A bother. Has been from the beginning. And the other girls were such little blessings. Well, I suppose we were due. I tell you this in complete confidence—I’m at my wit’s end with this one. I really am. When she isn’t reading, she’s taking something apart or flirting with the footman or climbing things—trees, furniture, even other people.”

“That was years ago!” objected Sophronia. Will she never let that go? I was eight!

“Hush, child.” Mrs. Temminnick didn’t even look in her daughter’s direction. “Have you ever heard of the like with a girl? Now, I know she’s a little brazen for finishing school, but I was hoping you might make an exception, just this once.”

Finishing school? Then I’m not being sent to the vampires? Relief flooded through Sophronia, instantly followed by a new horror. Finishing school! There would be lessons. On how to curtsy. On how to dress. On how to eat with one’s finger in the air. Sophronia shuddered. Perhaps a vampire hive was a better option.

Mrs. Temminnick pressed on. “We are certainly willing to provide compensation for your considering Sophronia. Mrs. Barnaclegoose told me, in confidence, that you are masterly with troublesome cases. You have an excellent record. Why, only last week one of your girls married a viscount.”

Sophronia was rattled. “Really, Mumsy!” Marriage? Already?

As yet, the crow had said nothing. This was a common occurrence around Sophronia’s mother. The stranger merely sipped her tea, the bulk of her attention on Sophronia. Her eyes were hard, assessing, and her movements very precise and sharp.

Mrs. Temminnick continued. “And, of course, there is dear Petunia’s coming-out ball to consider. We were hoping Sophronia might be presentable for the event. This December? Well, as presentable as possible, given her… defects.”

Sophronia winced. She was well aware she hadn’t her sisters’ looks. For some reason the Fates had seen fit to design her rather more in her father’s image than her mother’s. But there was no need to discuss such a thing openly with a stranger!

“That could be arranged.” When the woman finally spoke, it was with such a strong French accent that her words were difficult to understand. “Miss Temminnick, why is there india rubber wrapped around your boots?”

Sophronia looked down. “Mumsy was complaining I kept scuffing them.”

“Interesting solution. Does it work?”

“Haven’t had a chance to test them properly.” She paused. “Yet.”

The stranger looked neither shocked nor impressed by this statement.

Frowbritcher reappeared. He made a motion with one clawlike mechanical arm, beckoning. Sophronia’s mother stood and went to confer with the butler. Frowbritcher had a sinister habit of turning up with secrets. It was highly disconcerting in a mechanical.

After a whispered interchange, Mrs. Temminnick went red about the face and then whirled back around.

Oh, dear, thought Sophronia, what have I done now?

“Please excuse me for a moment. There appears to be some difficulty with our new dumbwaiter.” She gave her daughter a pointed look. “Hold your tongue and behave, young lady!”

“Yes, Mumsy.”

Mrs. Temminnick left the room, closing the door firmly behind her.

“Where did you get the rubber?” The crow dismissed Sophronia’s mother with comparative ease, still intrigued by the shoe modification. India rubber was expensive and difficult to come by, particularly in any shape more complex than a ball.

Sophronia nodded in a significant way.

“You destroyed a dumbwaiter for it?”

“I’m not saying I did. I’m not saying I didn’t, either.” Sophronia was cautious. After all, this woman wants to steal me away to finishing school. I’ll be there for years and then foisted off on some viscount with two thousand a year and a retreating hairline. Sophronia rethought her approach; perhaps a little less circumspection and some judiciously applied sabotage was called for.

“Mumsy wasn’t lying, you understand, about my conduct? The climbing and such. Although it has been a while since I tried to climb up a person. And the footman and I weren’t flirting. He thinks Petunia is the pip, not me.”

“What about the taking apart?”

Sophronia nodded, as it was a better excuse for destroying the dumbwaiter than spying. “I’m fond of machines. Intriguing things, machines, don’t you find?”

The woman cocked her head to one side. “I generally prefer to make use of them, not dissect them. Why do you do it? To upset your mother?”

Sophronia considered this. She was relatively fond of her mother, as one is apt to be, but she supposed some part of her might be on the attack. “Possibly.”

A flash of a smile appeared on the woman’s face. It made her look very young. It vanished quickly. “How are you as a thespian? Any good?”

“Theatricals?” What kind of finishing school teacher asks that? Sophronia was put out. “I may have smudges on my face, but I’m still a lady!”

The woman looked at Sophronia’s exposed petticoat. “That remains to be seen.” She turned away, as though not interested anymore, and helped herself to a slice of cake. “Are you strong?”

Down the hall, something exploded with a bang. Sophronia thought she heard her mother shriek. Both she and the visitor ignored the disruption.

“Strong?” Sophronia edged toward the tea trolley, eyeing the sponge.

“From all the climbing.” A pause. “And the machine lifting, I suppose.”

Sophronia blinked. “I’m not weak.”

“You’re certainly good at prevarication.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“That depends on whom you’re asking.”

Sophronia helped herself to two pieces of cake, just as though she had been invited to do so. The visitor forbore to remark upon it. Sophronia turned away briefly, in the guise of finding a spoon, to tuck one piece in her apron pocket. Mumsy wouldn’t allow her any sweets for the next week once she found out about the dumbwaiter.

The woman might have seen the theft, but she didn’t acknowledge it.

“You run this finishing school, then?”

“Do you run this finishing school, Mademoiselle Geraldine?” corrected the crow.

“Do you run this finishing school, Mademoiselle Geraldine?” parroted Sophronia dutifully, even though they had not been properly introduced. Odd, in a finishing school teacher. Shouldn’t she wait until Mumsy returns?

“It is called Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Have you heard of it?”

Sophronia had. “I thought only the very best families were allowed in.”

“Sometimes we make exceptions.”

“Are you the Mademoiselle Geraldine? You don’t seem old enough.”

“Why, thank you, Miss Temminnick, but you should not make such an observation to your betters.”

“Sorry, madam.”

“Sorry, Mademoiselle Geraldine.”

“Oh, yes, sorry, Mademoiselle Geraldine.”

“Very good. Do you notice anything else odd about me?”

Sophronia said the first thing that came to mind. “The gray in your hair. It’s amiss.”

“You are an observant young lady, aren’t you?” Then, in a sudden movement, Mademoiselle Geraldine reached and pulled out the small throw pillow from behind her back. She tossed it at Sophronia.

Sophronia, who had never before had a lady throw a pillow at her, was flabbergasted, but caught it.

“Adequate reflexes,” said Mademoiselle Geraldine, wiggling her fingers for the return of the pillow.

Bemused, Sophronia handed it back to her. “Why—”

A black-gloved hand was raised against any further questions.

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Today I Read…Summer Knight

Summer KnightToday I Read Summer Knight, the fourth book in The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. I’ve previously reviewed the first three books, Storm Front, Fool Moon, and Grave Peril.

Harry Dresden has never been in so much trouble before–which is really saying something. The Red Court of the vampires is after his blood, both literally and figuratively. They’re threatening war with the White Council of wizards if the Council doesn’t hand Dresden over, and Harry isn’t exactly overflowing with allies on the Council. They think that he’s reckless, foolhardy, unprincipled, and dangerous, especially after he killed his mentor and his girlfriend when he was a teenager. (There were extenuating circumstances–namely, they were trying to kill him at the time.)

Now to prove himself, Harry must act as the Emissary for Queen Mab of the Winter Faerie Court, tasked to discover who killed the Knight of the Summer Court, Ronald Reuel, and prevent a war between Winter and Summer. Easier said than done.

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Like Grave Peril, Summer Knight feels like part of a series as opposed to a stand-alone novel. Finally we learn more about why Dresden had the Doom hanging over his head in the first book, Storm Front. We meet the White Council that Dresden has been so wary of, and learn that he is right to be cautious–many of them have no love for him since he killed his mentor, Justin DuMorne, and his girlfriend and fellow apprentice Elaine Mallory (and points for people who can guess where Butcher picked those names from). We learn more about the structure of the fairy courts, though we still don’t know much about how he came to be under the power of his fairy godmother Leanansidhe. We see little of the vampire courts, though we do see their assassination attempts against Dresden. Many things (although not everything) that has been hinted at or alluded to in the past three books is pulled out into the open, sometimes kicking and screaming, though I have faith that not all has been revealed–Harry Dresden is never that simple, and there are still more than 10 books left in the series to go. However, major changes in the Dresdenverse happen because of Summer Knight–there are major shakeups in the Faerie Courts that I’m sure will have long-reaching consequences, as well as the oncoming war between the vampires and the wizards (c’mon, no way that’s a spoiler–Harry Dresden stop a war? Only by uniting everyone against him, and that’s already happened.). I’m looking forwards to finding out what happens next.

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She regarded me in that empty silence for long moments more. It was unsettling to see a face so lovely look so wholly alien, as though something lurked behind those features that had little in common with me and did not care to make the effort to understand. That blank mask made my throat tighten, and I had to work not to let the gun in my hand shake. But then she did something that made her look even more alien, more frightening.

She smiled. A slow smile, cruel as a barbed knife. When she spoke, her voice sounded just as beautiful as it had before. But it was empty, quiet, haunting. She spoke, and it made me want to lean closer to her to hear her more clearly. “Clever,” she murmured. “Yes. Not too distracted to think. Just what I need.”

A cold shiver danced down my spine. “I don’t want any trouble,” I said. “Just go, and we can both pretend nothing happened.”

“But it has,” she murmured. Just the sound of her voice made the room feel colder. “You have seen through this veil. Proven your worth. How did you do it?”

“Static on the doorknob,” I said. “It should have been locked. You shouldn’t have been able to get in here, so you must have gone through it. And you danced around my questions rather than simply answering them.”

Still smiling, she nodded. “Go on.”

“You don’t have a purse. Not many women go out in a three-thousand-dollar suit and no purse.”

“Mmmm,” she said. “Yes. You’ll do perfectly, Mister Dresden.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “I’m having nothing more to do with faeries.”

“I don’t like being called that, Mister Dresden.”

“You’ll get over it. Get out of my office.”

“You should know, Mister Dresden, that my kind, from great to small, are bound to speak the truth.”

“That hasn’t slowed your ability to deceive.”

Her eyes glittered, and I saw her pupils change, slipping from round mortal orbs to slow feline lengths. Cat-eyed, she regarded me, unblinking. “Yet have I spoken. I plan to gamble. And I will gamble upon you.”

“Uh. What?”

“I require your service. Something precious has been stolen. I wish you to recover it.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You want me to recover stolen goods for you?”

“Not for me,” she murmured. “For the rightful owners. I wish you to discover and catch the thief and to vindicate me.”

“Do it yourself,” I said.

“In this matter I cannot act wholly alone,” she murmured. “That is why I have chosen you to be my emissary. My agent.”

I laughed at her. That made something else come into those perfect, pale features-anger. Anger, cold and terrible, flashed in her eyes and all but froze the laugh in my throat. “I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m not making any more bargains with your folk. I don’t even know who you are.”

“Dear child,” she murmured, a slow edge to her voice. “The bargain has already been made. You gave your life, your fortune, your future, in exchange for power.”

“Yeah. With my godmother. And that’s still being contested.”

“No longer,” she said. “Even in this world of mortals, the concept of debt passes from one hand to the next. Selling mortgages, yes?”

My belly went cold. “What are you saying?”

Her teeth showed, sharp and white. It wasn’t a smile. “Your mortgage, mortal child, has been sold. I have purchased it. You are mine. And you will assist me in this matter.”

I set the gun down on my desk and opened the top drawer. I took out my letter opener, one of the standard machined jobs with a heavy, flat blade and a screw-grip handle. “You’re wrong,” I said, and the denial in my voice sounded patently obvious, even to me. “My godmother would never do that. For all I know, you’re trying to trick me.”

She smiled, watching me, her eyes bright. “Then by all means, let me reassure you of the truth.”

My left palm slammed down onto the table. I watched, startled, as I gripped the letter opener in my right hand, slasher-movie style. In a panic, I tried to hold back my hand, to drop the opener, but my arms were running on automatic, like they were someone else’s.

“Wait!” I shouted.

She regarded me, cold and distant and interested.

I slammed the letter opener down onto the back of my own hand, hard. My desk is a cheap one. The steel bit cleanly through the meat between my thumb and forefinger and sank into the desk, pinning me there. Pain washed up my arm even as blood started oozing out of the wound. I tried to fight it down, but I was panicked, in no condition to exert a lot of control. A whimper slipped out of me. I tried to pull the steel away, to get it out of my hand, but my arm simply twisted, wrenching the letter opener counterclockwise.

The pain flattened me. I wasn’t even able to get enough breath to scream.

The woman, the faerie, reached down and took my fingers away from the letter opener. She withdrew it with a sharp, decisive gesture and laid it flat on the desk, my blood gleaming all over it. “Wizard, you know as well as I. Were you not bound to me, I would have no such power over you.”

At that moment, most of what I knew was that my hand hurt, but some dim part of me realized she was telling the truth. Faeries don’t just get to ride in and play puppet master. You have to let them in. I’d let my godmother, Lea, in years before, when I was younger, dumber. I’d given her the slip last year, forced an abeyance of her claim that should have protected me for a year and a day.

But now she’d passed the reins to someone else. Someone who hadn’t been in on the second bargain.

I looked up at her, pain and sudden anger making my voice into a low, harsh growl. “Who are you?”

The woman ran an opalescent fingernail through the blood on my desk. She lifted it to her lips and idly touched it to her tongue. She smiled, slower, more sensual, and every bit as alien. “I have many names,” she murmured. “But you may call me Mab. Queen of Air and Darkness. Monarch of the Winter Court of the Sidhe.”

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“Gatekeeper,” the Merlin said, “what is your vote?”

The silent figure of the Gatekeeper silently lifted one hand. “We have set our feet upon a darkling path,” he murmured. “A road that will only grow more dangerous. Our first steps are critical. We must make them with caution.”

The cowl turned toward Ebenezar, and the Gatekeeper said, “You love the boy, Wizard McCoy. You would fight to defend him. Your own dedication to our cause is not inconsiderable. I respect your choice.”

He turned toward LaFortier. “You question Dresden’s loyalty and his ability. You imply that only a bad seed can grow from bad soil. Your concerns are understandable-and if correct, then Dresden poses a major threat to the Council.”

He turned to Ancient Mai and inclined the cowl forward a few degrees. The Ancient responded with a slight bow of her own. “Ancient Mai,” the Gatekeeper said. “You question his ability to use his power wisely. To judge between right and wrong. You fear that DuMorne’s teaching may have twisted him in ways even he cannot yet see. Your fears, too, are justified.”

He turned to the Merlin. “Honored Merlin. You know that Dresden has drawn death and danger down upon the Council. You believe that if he is removed, so will be that danger. Your fears are understandable, but not reasonable. Regardless of what happens to Dresden, the

Red Court

has struck a blow against the Council too deep to be ignored. A cessation of current hostilities would only be the calm before the storm.”

“Enough, man,” Ebenezar demanded. “Vote, for or against.”

“I choose to base my vote upon a Trial. A test that will lay to rest the fears of one side of the issue, or prove falsely placed the faith of the other.”

“What Trial?” the Merlin asked.

“Mab,” the Gatekeeper said. “Let Dresden address Queen Mab’s request. Let him secure the assistance of Winter. If he does, that should lay to rest your concerns regarding his ability, LaFortier.”

LaFortier frowned, but then nodded at the Gatekeeper.

He turned next to Ancient Mai. “Should he accomplish this, it should show that he is willing to accept responsibility for his mistake and to work against his own best interests for the greater good of the Council. It should satisfy your concerns as to his judgement-to make the mistakes of youth is no crime, but not to learn from them is. Agreed?”

Ancient Mai narrowed her rheumy eyes, but gave the Gatekeeper a precise nod.

“And you, honored Merlin. Such a success may do much to alleviate the pressure of the coming war. If securing routes through the Nevernever places the

Red Court

at a severe enough disadvantage, it may even enable us to avoid it entirely. Surely it would prove Dresden’s dedication to the Council beyond a doubt.”

“That’s all well and good,” Ebenezar said. “But what happens if he fails?”

The Gatekeeper shrugged. “Then perhaps their fears are more justified than your affection, Wizard McCoy. We may indeed conclude that his appointment to full Wizard Initiate may have been premature.”

“All or nothing?” Ebenezar demanded. “Is that it? You expect the youngest wizard in the Council to get the best of Queen Mab somehow? Mab? That’s not a Trial. It’s a goddamned execution. How is he even supposed to know what her request was to begin with?”

I stood up, my legs shaking a little. “Ebenezar,” I said.

“How the hell is the boy supposed to know what she wants?”

“Ebenezar-”

“I’m not going to stand by while you-” He abruptly blinked and looked at me. So did everyone else.

“I know what Mab wants,” I said. “She approached me earlier today, sir. She asked me to investigate something for her. I turned her down.”

“Hell’s bells,” Ebenezar breathed. He took the blue bandanna from his pocket and mopped at his gleaming forehead. “Hoss, this is out of your depth.”

“Looks like it’s sink or swim, then,” I said.

The Gatekeeper murmured to me in English, “Will you accept this, Wizard Dresden?”

Today I Read…Grave Peril

Grave PerilToday I read Grave Peril by Jim Butcher, the third book in The Dresden Files. I’ve previously reviewed the first two book, Storm Front and Fool Moon.

Why can’t villains just stay dead? Harry Dresden, Chicago’s (only) openly practicing wizard private eye, and his friend Michael Carpenter, a Knight of the Cross, are hunting a dangerous ghost when they are forced to cross over into the Nevernever, the realm of magic–and the home of Leanansidhe, Dresden’s not-at-all-beloved fairy godmother. After escaping from Leanansidhe, Dresden discovers that the murderous ghost was being controlled by a demon he calls the Nightmare.

Compounding the problems caused by the restless local spirits, the vampires seem to be making trouble again, and they’re doing it by holding a ball–a ball that Dresden is invited to as the representative of the White Council of wizards, even though the vampires have been trying to kill him. Unfortunately, refusing the invitation would be a deadly insult, with an emphasis on ‘deadly’.

So, evil sorcerer vampire, ghost with a grudge that can attack you in your sleep, faerie who wants to turn you into a frog and play with you for a few centuries, a burgeoning war between the vampires and the wizards, and a nosy reporter girlfriend with no instinct for self-preservation–even for Harry Dresden, this could present a problem.

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Grave Peril is where The Dresden Files really starts to pick up as a series, where it really seems like the books are connected to each other and not just monster-of-the-week episodes. In the first two books, Harry Dresden is by and large a solitary man. While he has people in his life (Murphy, Bob, Mister–ok, only Murphy is human), he holds most of them at a distance, and it’s hard for the reader to connect with his friends and family because he is disconnected from them. In Grave Peril, Dresden shows his investment in other people’s lives–in his friend and ally, Michael Carpenter, in his girlfriend, Susan Rodriguez, in his godmother, Leanansidhe (I didn’t say he liked her, just that they’re connected). Dresden’s friends are a weakness that can be (and are) used against him, but saving the world has always been a team sport. The traditional hard-bitten noir detective that Dresden wishes he was (see my review of Storm Front) is a solitary bastard with no friends to back him up or pick him up; Dresden can only get by with a little help from his friends. The problem is that letting people in means showing where you’re vulnerable to the world. Bianca is able to use Susan against Dresden because he cares for her. He’d probably try to rescue anyone being held captive by the vampires–he does have White Knight Syndrome still, especially for women since he promises Lydia he will try and help her when she comes begging for his help, but when other people die he isn’t as gutted as he is when he loses Susan.

Harry’s other problem with his friends is his complete incapability of demonstrating said investment and emotional connection. He spends most of the book unable to tell Susan that he loves her, even when he can admit it to himself and to others, until it is too late for them. He would clearly prefer to be a man of action, not words when it comes to interpersonal relationships, but this is a book–words are what the reader needs. Words are the strongest magic there is, even stronger than the power of Chicago’s private eye wizard.

This book also sets the stage for the war between the vampires and the wizards, and introduces the Faerie Courts in more detail. We get more hints about Dresden’s background with the White Council and with Leanansidhe, and how he came to be who he is. The first two books in the series were good–Grave Peril first demonstrates the potential for greatness in The Dresden Files.

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“Lord be with us,” Michael said, and crossed himself. I felt a stirring of something; powerful, placid energy around him—the power of faith. “Harry, there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”

“Don’t ask me to Mass again,” I told him, uncomfortable. “You know I’m just going to say no.” Someone in a red Taurus cut me off, and I had to swerve around him, into the turn lane, and then ahead of him again. A couple of the Beetle’s wheels lifted off the ground. “Jerk!” I howled out the driver’s window.

“That doesn’t preclude asking,” Michael said. “But no. I wanted to know when you were going to marry Miss Rodriguez.”

“Hell’s Bells, Michael,” I scowled. “You and I have been chasing all over town for the past two weeks, going up against every ghost and spirit that has all of a sudden reared its ugly head. We still don’t know what’s causing the spirit world to go postal.”

“I know that, Harry, but—”

“At the moment,” I interrupted, “we’re going after a nasty old biddy at Cook County, who could kill us if we aren’t focused. And you’re asking me about my love life.”

Michael frowned at me. “You’re sleeping with her, aren’t you?” he said.

“Not often enough,” I growled, and shifted lanes, swerving around a passenger bus.

The knight sighed. “Do you love her?” he asked.

“Michael,” I said. “Give me a break. Where do you get off asking questions like that?”

“Do you love her?” he pressed.

“I’m trying to drive, here.”

“Harry,” he asked, smiling. “Do you love the girl or don’t you? It isn’t a difficult question.”

“Speaks the expert,” I grumbled. I went past a blue-and-white at about twenty miles an hour over the speed limit, and saw the police officer behind the wheel blink and spill his coffee as he saw me go past. I checked my rearview mirror, and saw the blue bulbs on the police car whirl to life. “Dammit, that tears it. The cops are going to be coming in right after us.”

“Don’t worry about them,” Michael assured me. “Just answer the question.”

I flashed Michael a glance. He watched me, his face broad and honest, his jaw strong, and his grey eyes flashing. His hair was cropped close, Marine-length, on top, but he sported a short, warrior’s beard, which he kept clipped close to his face. “I suppose so,” I said, after a second. “Yeah.”

“Then you don’t mind saying it?”

“Saying what?” I stalled.

“Harry,” Michael scolded, holding on as we bounced through a dip in the street. “Don’t be a child about this. If you love the woman, say so.”

“Why?” I demanded.

“You haven’t told her, have you? You’ve never said it.”

I glared at him. “So what if I haven’t? She knows. What’s the big deal?”

“Harry Dresden,” he said. “You, of all people, should know the power of words.”

“Look, she knows,” I said, tapping the brakes and then flattening the accelerator again. “I got her a card.”

“A card?” Michael asked.

“A Hallmark.”

He sighed. “Let me hear you say the words.”

“What?”

“Say the words,” he demanded. “If you love the woman, why can’t you say so?”

“I don’t just go around saying that to people, Michael. Stars and sky, that’s . . . I just couldn’t, all right?”

“You don’t love her,” Michael said. “I see.”

“You know that’s not—”

“Say it, Harry.”

“If it will get you off my back,” I said, and gave the Beetle every ounce of gas that I could. I could see the police in traffic somewhere behind me. “All right.” I flashed Michael a ferocious, wizardly scowl and snarled, “I love her. There, how’s that?”

Michael beamed. “You see? That’s the only thing that stands between you two. You’re not the kind of person who says what they feel. Or who is very introspective, Harry. Sometimes, you just need to look into the mirror and see what’s there.”

“I don’t like mirrors,” I grumbled.

“Regardless, you needed to realize that you do love the woman. After Elaine, I thought you might isolate yourself too much and never—”

I felt a sudden flash of anger and vehemence. “I don’t talk about Elaine, Michael. Ever. If you can’t live with that, get the hell out of my car and let me work on my own.”

Michael frowned at me, probably more for my choice of words than anything else. “I’m talking about Susan, Harry. If you love her, you should marry her.”

“I’m a wizard. I don’t have time to be married.”

“I’m a knight,” Michael responded. “And I have the time. It’s worth it. You’re alone too much. It’s starting to show.”

I scowled at him again. “What does that mean?”

“You’re tense. Grumpy. And you’re isolating yourself more all the time. You need to keep up human contact, Harry. It would be so easy for you to start down a darker path.”

“Michael,” I snapped, “I don’t need a lecture. I don’t need the conversion speech again. I don’t need the ‘cast aside your evil powers before they consume you’ speech. Again. What I need is for you to back me up while I go take care of this thing.”

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She turned to me and smiled, her chocolate-colored eyes worried but warm. She tilted her head back toward the hallway behind her, where Michael and Charity had gone. “They’re a beautiful couple, aren’t they?”

I tried to smile back, but didn’t do so well. “They got off to a good start.”

Susan’s eyes studied my face, the cuts there, and the worry in her eyes deepened. “Oh? How’s that?”

“He rescued her from a fire-breathing dragon.” I walked toward her.

“Sounds nice,” she said, and met me halfway, giving me a long and gentle hug that made my bruised ribs ache. “You okay?”

“I’ll be okay.”

“More ghostbusting with Michael. What’s his story?”

“Off the record. Publicity could hurt him. He’s got kids.”

Susan frowned, but nodded. “All right,” she said, and added a flair of melodrama to her words. “So what is he? Some kind of eternal soldier? Maybe a sleeping Arthurian knight woken in this desperate age to battle the forces of evil?”

“As far as I know he’s a carpenter.”

Susan arched a brow at me. “Who fights ghosts. What, has he got a magic nailgun or something?”

I tried not to smile. The muscles at the corners of my mouth ached. “Not quite. He’s a righteous man.”

“He seemed nice enough to me.”

“No, not self-righteous. Righteous. The real deal. He’s honest, loyal, faithful. He lives his ideals. It gives him power.”

Susan frowned. “He looked average enough. I’d have expected . . . I’m not sure. Something. A different attitude.”

“That’s because he’s humble too,” I said. “If you asked him if he was righteous, he’d laugh at the idea. I guess that’s part of it. I’ve never met anyone like him. He’s a good man.”

She pursed her lips. “And the sword?”

“Amoracchius,” I supplied.

“He named his sword. How very Freudian of him. But his wife just about reached down that clerk’s throat to get it back.”

“It’s important to him,” I said. “He believes that it is one of three weapons given by God to mankind. Three swords. Each of them has a nail that is supposed to be from the Cross worked into its design. Only one of the righteous can wield them. The ones who do call themselves the Knights of the Cross. Others call them the Knights of the Sword.”

Susan frowned. “The Cross?” she said. “As in the Crucifixion, capital C?”

I shrugged, uncomfortably. “How should I know? Michael believes it. That kind of belief is a power of its own. Maybe that’s enough.” I took a breath and changed the subject. “Anyway, my car got impounded. I had to drive fast and C.P.D. didn’t like it.”

Her dark eyes sparkled. “Anything worth a story?”

I laughed tiredly. “Don’t you ever give up?”

“A girl’s got to earn a living,” she said, and fell into step beside me on the way out, slipping her arm through mine.

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Bianca ran her hands over Susan’s hair. “This one will stay with me. You stole away someone dear to me, Mister Dresden. And I am going to take away someone dear to you. After that, all will be equal.” She gave Ortega a very small smile and then glanced at me and asked, “Well? What say you? If you prefer to remain with her, I’m sure a place could be made for you here. After suitable assurances of your loyalty, of course.”

I remained silent for a moment, stunned.

“Well, wizard?” she snapped, harsher. “How do you answer? Accept my bargain. My compromise. Or it is war. And you will become its first casualty.”

I looked at Susan. She stared blankly, her mouth partially open, caught in a trance of some kind. I could probably snap her out of it, provided a bunch of vampires didn’t tear me limb from limb while I tried. I looked up at Bianca. At Ortega. At the hissing vampire cronies. They were drooling on the polished floor.

I hurt all over, and I felt so very damned tired.

“I love her,” I said. I didn’t say it very loud.

“What?” Bianca stared at me. “What did you say?”

“I said, I love her.”

“She is already half mine.”

“So? I still love her.”

“She isn’t even fully human any longer, Dresden. It won’t be long before she is as a sister to me.”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” I said. “Get your hands off my girlfriend.”

Bianca’s eyes widened. “You are mad,” she said. “You would flirt with chaos, destruction—with war. For the sake of this one wounded soul?”

I smote my staff on the floor, reaching deep for power. Deeper than I’ve ever reached before. Outside, in the gathering morning, the air crackled with thunder.

Bianca, even Ortega, looked abruptly uncertain, looking up and around, before focusing on me again.

“For the sake of one soul. For one loved one. For one life.” I called power into my blasting rod, and its tip glowed incandescent white. “The way I see it, there’s nothing else worth fighting a war for.”

Today I Read…Timeless

TimelessToday I read Timeless, the fifth and final book in the Parasol Protectorate series. You can read my reviews of the other books in the series, Soulless, Changeless, Blameless, and Heartless.

Life is about as settled as it ever gets for the preternatural Lady Alexia Tarabotti Maccon. She and her husband Lord Conall Maccon and the Woolsey werewolf pack are settled into their London townhouse. Well, the pack is settled into the townhouse–Alexia and Conall are secretly settled in the third closet of their next-door neighbour, the impeccably stylish vampire Lord Akeldama, who is raising their metanatural daughter Prudence (it was let him adopt the baby, or get murdered by the other vampires of London. It was still a hard decision.). The Maccons are also the patrons of the Tunstell’s Acting Troupe a la Mode, run by Alexia’s dear friend Ivy Tunstell and her husband–useful, since they need a good reason to go to Egypt when summoned by Queen Matakara. Patrons accompanying a troupe for a command performance is perfectly natural, now isn’t it? Much more expected than the oldest living vampire wanting to meet a toddler–even one as remarkable as Prudence Maccon.

Suddenly all roads seem to lead to Egypt, between Matakara’s invitation, a Kingair werewolf being shot after returning from Egypt, and the rumours that Alexia’s father was doing something there when he met Alexia’s mother.

Thank goodness Alexia has a new parasol–the sun isn’t the only deadly thing in Egypt.

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And thus concludes the Parasol Protectorate, at least for now. Finally all of the various mysteries of the series are tied up, and people are as settled as they can get. I’ve enjoyed the gradual expansion throughout the series from the focus on Alexia to watching each of her friends. I’m hard put to pick a favourite character–I do love Lord Akeldama and his outrageousness, but I also have a fondness for Biffy, so much stronger than he thinks he is and so devoted to making the world beautiful one accessory at a time, and for Professor Lyall, so quiet and competent and easily overlooked, while so completely ruthless in the name of his pack. And I’d love to see the books turned into a movie just so I could see Ivy’s hats–I’m not sure my imagination is up to the task.

All of the books in the series are fairly similar, with similar strengths. In a less-skilled author than Carriger, it could start to feel repetitive, but Alexia never quite loses her unique charm (otherwise known as bashing people with her parasol, verbally or literally, as required). The books are very visual, with detailed descriptions, particularly of the clothing of the time. The first two books have been published in manga form, with the third on the way–I may have to track them down to see how they have visually interpreted Carriger’s world.

It’s always a little sad to reach the end of the story–you have to say goodbye to the people you’ve met on this strange, wonderful journey. The nice thing is that you can pick the book up again, but it’s different when you’re walking a path you’ve walked before than when you are forging through new ground. Still, Timeless is a good ending, as far as endings go. The good live happily ever after, if somewhat noisily in the case of Alexia and Conall. Those who have done wrong, even in the name of the greater good, are punished, but still have the hope of redemption. You can’t ask for more than that.

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“I said no such thing,” grumbled Lord Maccon, allowing himself, begrudgingly, to be trussed in a new evening jacket. He twisted his head around, annoyed by the height of the collar and the tightness of the cravat. Floote patiently waited for him to stop twitching before continuing with the jacket. Werewolf or not, Lord Maccon would look his best or Floote’s given name wasn’t Algernon—which it was.

“Yes, you did, my dear.” Lady Alexia Maccon was one of the few people in London who dared contradict Lord Maccon. Being his wife, it might be said that she rather specialized in doing so. Alexia was already dressed, her statuesque form resplendent in a maroon silk and black lace evening gown with mandarin collar and Asian sleeves, newly arrived from Paris. “I remember it quite distinctly.” She pretended distraction in transferring her necessaries into a black beaded reticule. “I said we should show our patronage and support on opening night, and you grunted at me.”

“Well, there, that explains everything. That was a grunt of displeasure.” Lord Maccon wrinkled his nose like a petulant child while Floote skirted about him, puffing away nonexistent crumbs with the latest in steam-controlled air-puffing dewrinklers.

“No, dear, no. It was definitely one of your affirmative grunts.”

Conall Maccon paused at that and gave his wife a startled look. “God’s teeth, woman, how could you possibly tell?”

“Three years of marriage, dear. Regardless, I’ve replied in the affirmative that we will be in attendance at the Adelphi at nine sharp in time to take our box. We are both expected. There is no way out of it.”

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Downstairs, Lord Akeldama had converted a side parlor into a bathing chamber for his adopted daughter. It had become clear rather early on that bathing was going to be an event of epic proportions, requiring a room large enough to accommodate several of his best and most capable drones. Still, this being Lord Akeldama, even a room dedicated to the cleanliness of an infant was not allowed to be sacrificed upon the unadorned altar of practicality.

A thick Georgian rug lay on the floor covered with cavorting shepherdesses, the walls were painted in pale blue and white, and he’d had the ceiling frescoed with sea life in deference to the troublesome child’s evident unwillingness to associate with such. The cheerful otters, fish, and cephalopods above were meant as encouragement, but it was clear his daughter saw them as nothing more than squishy threats.

In the exact center of the room stood a gold, claw-footed bathtub. It was far too large for a toddler, but Lord Akeldama never did anything by halves, especially if he might double it at three times the expense. There was also a fireplace, before which stood multiple gold racks supporting fluffy and highly absorbent drying cloths and one very small Chinese silk robe.

There were no less than eight drones in attendance, as well as Lord Akeldama, a footman, and the nursemaid. Nevertheless, nothing could take on Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama when bathing was at stake.

The tub was overturned, saturating the beautiful rug with soapy water. Several of the drones were drenched. One was nursing a bruised knee and another a split lip. Lord Akeldama had tiny soapy handprints all over him. One of the drying racks had fallen on its side, singeing a cloth in the fire. The footman was standing with his mouth open, holding a bar of soap in one hand and a wedge of cheese in the other. The nanny had collapsed on a settee in tears.

In fact, the only person who seemed neither injured nor wet in any way was Prudence herself. The toddler was perched precariously on top of the mantelpiece over the fire, completely naked, with a very militant expression on her tiny face, yelling, “Noth, Dama. Noth wet. Noth, Dama!” She was lisping around her fangs.

Alexia stood in the doorway, transfixed.

Lord Akeldama straightened where he stood. “My darlings,” he said, “tactic number eight, I think—circle and enclose. Now brace yourselves, my pets. I’m going in.”

All the drones straightened and took up wide boxer’s stances, forming a loose circle about the contested mantelpiece. All attention was focused on the toddler, who held the high ground, unflinching.

The ancient vampire launched himself at his adopted daughter. He could move fast, possibly faster than any other creature Alexia had ever observed, and she had been the unfortunate victim of more than one vampire attack. However, in this particular instance, Lord Akeldama moved no quicker than any ordinary mortal man. Which was, of course, the current difficulty—hewas an ordinary mortal. His face was no longer deathless perfection but slightly effete and perhaps a little sulky. His movements were still graceful, but they were mortally graceful and, unfortunately, mortally slow.

Prudence leaped away in the manner of some kind of high-speed frog, her tiny, stubbly legs supernaturally strong but still toddler unstable. She crashed to the floor, screamed in very brief pain, and then zipped about looking for a break in the circle of drones closing in upon her.

“Noth, Dama. Noth wet,” she cried, charging one of the drones, her tiny fangs bared. Unaware of her own supernatural strength, the baby managed to bash her way between the poor man’s legs, making for the open doorway.

Except that the doorway was not, in fact, open. Therein stood the only creature who little Prudence had learned to fear and, of course, the one she loved best in all the world.

“Mama!” came her delighted cry, and then, “Dada!” as Conall’s shaggy head loomed up from behind his wife.

Alexia held out her arms and Prudence barreled into them with all the supernatural speed that a toddler vampire could manage. Alexia let out a harrumph of impact and stumbled backward into Conall’s broad, supportive embrace.

The moment the naked baby came into contact with Alexia’s bare arms, Prudence became no more dangerous than any squirming child.

“Now, Prudence, what is this fuss?” remonstrated her mother.

“No, Dama. No wet!” explained the toddler very clearly, now that she did not have the fangs to speak around.

“It’s bath night. You don’t have a choice. Real ladies are clean ladies,” explained her mother, rather sensibly, she thought.

Prudence was having none of it. “Nuh-uh.”

Lord Akeldama came over. He was once more pale, his movements quick and sharp. “Apologies, my little dumpling. She got away from Boots there and hurled herself at me before I could dodge.” He moved one fine white hand to stroke his adopted daughter’s hair back from her face. It was safe to do so now that Alexia held her close.

Prudence narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “No wet, Dama,” she insisted.

“Well, accidents will happen and we all know how she gets.” Alexia gave her daughter a stern look. Prudence, undaunted, glared back. Lady Maccon shook her head in exasperation. “Conall and I are off to the theater. Do you think you can handle bath night without me? Or should we cancel?”

Lord Akeldama was aghast at the mere suggestion. “Oh, dear me no,buttercup, never that! Not go to the theater? Heaven forfend. No, we shall shift perfectly well here without you, now that we’ve weathered this one teeny-tiny upset, won’t we, Prudence?”

“No,” replied Prudence.

Lord Akeldama backed away from her. “I’ll stay well out of range from here on, I assure you,” continued the vampire. “One brush with mortality a night is more than enough for me. It’s quite the discombobulating sensation, your daughter’s touch. Not at all like your own.”

Lord Maccon, who had been placed in a similar position on more than one occasion with regard to his daughter’s odd abilities, was uncharacteristically sympathetic to the vampire. He replied with a fervent, “I’ll say.” He also took the opportunity of Prudence being in her mother’s arms to ruffle his daughter’s hair affectionately.

“Dada! No wet?”

“Perhaps we could move bath night to tomorrow,” suggested Lord Maccon, succumbing to the plea in his daughter’s eyes.

Lord Akeldama brightened.

“Absolutely not,” replied Lady Maccon to both of them. “Backbone, gentlemen. We must stick to a routine. All the physicians say routine is vital to the well-being of the infant and her proper ethical indoctrination.”

The two immortals exchanged the looks of men who knew when they were beaten.

In order to forestall any further shilly-shallying, Alexia carried her struggling daughter over to the tub, which had been righted and refilled with warm water. Under ordinary circumstances, she would have plopped the child in herself, but worried over the dress, she passed Prudence off to Boots and stepped well out of harm’s way.

Under the watchful eye of her mother, the toddler acquiesced to full immersion, with only a nose wrinkle of disgust.

Alexia nodded. “Good girl. Now do behave for poor Dama. He puts up with an awful lot from you.”

“Dama!” replied the child, pointing at Lord Akeldama.

“Yes, very good.” Alexia turned back to her husband and the vampire in the doorway. “Do have a care, my lord.”

Lord Akeldama nodded. “Indeed. I must say I had not anticipated such a challenge when Professor Lyall first suggested the adoption.”

“Yes, it was foolish of all of us to think that Alexia here would produce a biddable child,” agreed the sire of said child, implying that any flaw was Alexia’s fault and that he would have produced nothing but the most mild-mannered and pliant of offspring.

“Or even one that a vampire could control.”

“Or a vampire and a pack of werewolves, for that matter.”

Alexia gave them both a look. “I hardly feel I can be entirely at fault. Are you claiming Sidheag is an aberration in the Maccon line?”

Lord Maccon tilted his head, thinking about his great-great-great-granddaughter, now Alpha werewolf of the Kingair Pack, a woman prone to wielding rifles and smoking small cigars. “Point taken.”

*********************************************************************************************************************

Afterward, Biffy could only just recall that ride back home, stumbling into the house and up the stairs, he and Professor Lyall leaning against one another in exhaustion. But he remembered perfectly the Beta’s face, a single sharp look when they reached the door to his chamber, almost frightened. It was a look Biffy recognized. He had neither the strength nor the interest in allowing loneliness to pillage anyone else’s peace of mind.

So he made the offer. “Would you like company, Professor?”

Professor Lyall looked at him, hazel eyes desperate. “I wouldn’t… that is… I couldn’t… that is… I’m not all that… capable.” He gave a weak little flap of a gesture indicating his still-wounded state, his fatigue, and his disheveled appearance all in one.

Biffy gave a little puff of a chuckle. He had never seen the urbane professor discombobulated before. Had he known, he might have flirted more in the past. “Just company, sir. I should never presume even if we were both in perfect health.” Besides, my hair must look atrocious. Imagine being able to attract anyone in such a state, let alone someone of Lyall’s standing.

The corner of his Beta’s mouth twitched, and he withdrew behind a veil of dispassionate hazel eyes. “Pity, pup? After you heard what Lord Woolsey did to me? It was a long time ago.”

Biffy had no doubt Professor Lyall was as proud, in his way, as any other man of good breeding and refined tastes. He tilted his head, showing his neck submissively. “No, sir. Never that. Respect, I suppose. To survive such things and still be sane.”

“Betas are made to maintain order. We are the butlers of the supernatural world.” An analogy no doubt sparked by the advent of Floote, who glided down the hallway toward them, looking as concerned as it is possible for a man to look who, so far as Biffy could tell, never displayed any emotion at all.

“You are well, gentlemen?”

“Yes, thank you, Floote.”

“There is nothing I can get for you?”

“No, thank you, Floote.”

“Investigation?” The butler arched an eyebrow at their fatigued and roughened state.

“No, Floote, a matter of pack protocol.”

“Ah.”

“Carry on, Floote.”

“Very good, sir.” Floote drifted away.

Biffy turned to make his way to his own sleeping chamber, assured now that his overtures had been rejected. He was forestalled by a hand on his arm.

Lyall had lovely hands, fine and strong, the hands of an artist who practiced a craft, a carpenter, perhaps, or a baker. Biffy had a sudden fanciful image of Lyall with a smudge of flour on his face, going comfortably into old age with a fine wife and brood of mild-mannered children.

The sandy head tilted in silent invitation. Professor Lyall opened the door to his bedroom. Biffy hesitated only a moment before following him inside.

By the time the sun set that evening, they were both fully recovered from the ordeal, having slept the day away without incident. Fully recovered and curled together naked in Lyall’s small bed.

Biffy learned, through careful kisses and soft caress, that Lyall was not at all disturbed by messy hair. In fact, his Beta’s hands were almost reverent, stroking through his curls. Biffy hoped that with his own touch he could convey his disregard for Lyall’s past actions and suffering, determined that none of what they did together should be about shame. Most of it, Biffy guessed, was about companionship. There might have been a tiny little seed of love. Just the beginnings, but a tender, equality of love, of a kind Biffy had never before experienced.

Professor Lyall was as different from Lord Akeldama as was possible. But there was something in that very difference that Biffy found restful. The contrast in characters made it feel like less of a betrayal. For two years, Biffy had held on to his hope and his infatuation with the vampire. It was time to let go. However, he didn’t feel that Lyall was edging Lord Akeldama out. Lyall wasn’t the type to compete. Instead he was carving himself a new place. Biffy might just be able to make the room. Lyall was, after all, not very big, for a werewolf. Of course, he worried about Felicity’s story of Alessandro Tarabotti, about whether Lyall was capable of loving him back, but it was early yet and Biffy allowed himself to revel in the simple joy that can only be found in allaying another’s loneliness.

When Lyall lay flush against him, nuzzling up into his neck, Biffy thought they fit well together. Not matched colors so much as coordinated, with Lyall a neutral cream satin, perhaps, and Biffy a royal blue.

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.