MANNERS, SIR. MANNERS.
This is the first in the 5-book Alexia Tarabotti series. The series is set in Victorian-era London, but the books are in the alternate historical reality of the steampunk genre.
As in many steampunk stories, the main characters are paranormal. Alexia is a preternatural while Lord Maccon and Lord Akeldama are supernaturals, an alpha werewolf and a rove vampire respectively. It is through Alexia’s eyes that we see the story unfold and she is the unique one of the set.
In the world that Carriger builds, a preternatural like Alexia is a soulless human. It is an inherited and extremely rare condition but not an evil condition. It simply means that, with physical contact, Alexia can convert a vampire or a werewolf back to its human state. But the conversion lasts only as long as the physical contact is maintained. Since supernaturals are not born into their condition, the conversion is temporary.
Alexia inherited her preternatural condition from her Italian father, who is now dead. Her mother has remarried into the lower aristocracy and considers Alexia’s above average intelligence, her outspokenness and her Italian countenance quite the social problem. Ashamed of her, yet totally unaware of her preternatural skills, the mother refuses her a coming-out party. Thus, Alexia is declared a spinster at the ripe old age of 15.
Alexia is now, at the opening of the story, 26 years old and uses her spinsterhood to her distinct personal and intellectual advantage. While her family may not know of her condition, the supernatural world definitely does and she is greatly feared among the vampires.
Carriger builds from this background a story of substance. Using snappy dialogue, knowledge of Victorian era culture and an active imagination, she leads the reader right down the proverbial path from thinking this is a comedic romance to realizing it is a tense mystery of kidnapping and murder.
But throughout the book, even during the tensest and nastiest moments, Carriger uses the oh-so-proper nature of Victorian speech to insert humor. Using double entendre, tongue-in-cheek repartee and out-right snark, the author sets the reader up to suddenly cackle with delight or laugh to the point of tears. And even the non-dialogue parts are done with a Victorian cadence.
As far as a supernatural romantic suspense goes, this is a pretty good one, but it falls short as steampunk. The clockwork and steam mechanisms that usually characterize a steampunk entry are present but not prominent. As the story progresses, the explanations and descriptions provided increasingly leave a fuzzy feeling, as if they are being included only to establish genre. Quite frankly, Bec McMasters does a far better job incorporating such devices with the characters’ roles.
There are two other things that bothered me and caused me to reduce my rating. First, the author repeatedly declares that the soulless preternatural has been used throughout the centuries to kill supernatural creatures. However, the mechanism for doing so was never actually explained. I think I figured it out, but the author should have been far clearer, since simple touch couldn’t do it.
And secondly, the character development, with the exception of Alexia, leaves much to be desired. Even though Lord Maccon, Professor Lyall and Lord Akeldama are clearly intended as major players in the series, their portrayals come off as only two-dimensional.
I do not know yet if I will continue on with the series. While the premise of the series is rather original and the dialogue is refreshing, I was not sucked in enough at the end to pay the price currently being asked for Carriger’s books.
Cover Art from Goodreads