Heartless, by Gail Carriger

Title: Heartless (Parasol Protectorate #4)Heartless
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 374 pages
Genre: steampunk paranormal mystery
New or Re-Read?: Brand new!
Rating: 4 stars and a bit of an extra twinkle
Spoiler Warning: Quite active, not just for Heartless, but for the end of Changeless up through Blameless.

This  may be my favourite of the Parasol Protectorate series thus far. The wit is sharp, the action crisp, and the plot tight, all of which make for a highly enjoyable read.

In Heartless, Alexia receives a message from a ghost indicating that someone is planning to kill the queen. Naturally, Alexia does not see her considerably advanced pregnancy as any reason not to get to the bottom of the plot — not any more than her move into Lord Akeldama’s second closet should disrupt her affairs. (Why has she taken up residence with the new vampire potentate? Well, it appears to be the way to get the Westminster Hive to stop trying to kill her and her infant-inconvenience, which was really starting to become a considerable distraction to her). Investigating the matter takes Alexia deep into the worlds and secrets of vampires, werewolves, and ghosts alike, forcing her to put brainpower and sheer stubbornness together until she uncovers all the pieces of the puzzle.

I quite liked the twists and turns in the plotline. I was able to guess enough of them to feel clever, but not so many that it felt predictable, which is really the perfect balance in a thriller. The red herrings aren’t just thrown out for the sake of being there; they lead down paths of their own, vitally important to the characters and to the overall series, even if they’re not tied to the main mystery of this book. I appreciate that, because few things are so frustrating in a story as a loose end dangling out there without payoff. We also get to see the enmeshing of supernatural politics in thorough detail, picking up some of the threads from Changeless (probably my second-favourite of the series).

This book also uses technological elements a little more deftly than previous books in the series have. On the whole, the Parasol Protectorate series is more paranormal-heavy than techno-heavy, but Heartless weaves mechanical porcupines and the increasingly fearsome inventions of Madame Lefoux more neatly into the rest of the story. They feel more integrated, less like window-dressing and more like real facets of Carriger’s alternate universe. And there’s a lot to be said for the mental image of an actress walking a mechanical porcupine on a leash down the middle of a busy London street.

What I liked best about Heartless, though, was how much we got to explore the emotions and the psychological landscapes of the various characters — Lyall, Ivy, Genevieve, Akeldama, all of them get new revelations, new layers, and new facets. Alexia’s explorations, as she attempts to get to the bottom of the threat against the queen, unveil a lot of personal history. My favourite of these is Lyall’s — he’s such a perfect Beta, and in Heartless we get to see more of just what he’s done to hold his pack together with both, er, paws. Alexia thinks of Lyall as someone who no one would remember as being part of a group, except that, because of him, the group stays together — that’s a powerful skill and an incredibly valuable person to have around. Carriger also didn’t disappoint when it came to poor Biffy, Akeldama’s former drone who had, rather unfortunately, to face eternity as a werewolf instead of a vampire as he’d intended. His struggle is poignant (although not without its touches of humour, when Biffy comes to his senses after destroying wallpaper or silk breeches), and it’s a nice exploration of some of the consequences that the supernatural set faces from their actions. These character explorations — emotionally and psychologically real and satisfying ,without ever losing the effervescent tone of the book — are some of the best bits.

Add to all of this Carriger’s usual quick wit and frothy sense of irreverence, and you’ve got a thoroughly compelling read. Some of my favourite bits are the one-liners that she slips into the narrative, casual snippets which are so absurd or so sharp that they’re laugh-out-loud funny. Carriger recently mentioned on her blog (and has apparently mentioned before, though as a newcomer to the series, I hadn’t heard it before) that each of the books in the Parasol Protectorate series has been in mimicry of a particular style. Soulless was an emulation of Austen-esque early romance novels (which explains, at least, the far-too-saccharine prose of the first book), Changeless of Gothic tales, Blameless of travel-adventure novels, and Heartless of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. And it isn’t that Carriger doesn’t do these emulations well (although in Soulless I found it more a detraction than anything) — it’s that I wish she’d just trust her own style more. Timeless, out next year, is due to be the last in the series (and, judging by the cover, an Egyptology expedition), and while I’ll be quite sad to see Alexia and all the rest go, I’ll also be hoping that Carriger’s next project will showcase her own style more, rather than these experiments with genre. As I said in my review for Soulless — she’s at her best when her wit shines through.

Overall, I recommend Heartless as strongly as the rest of the series — Alexia’s story just keeps getting better. These books are inventive, intriguing, and just plain fun. They embody a lightheartedness, a willingness not to take themselves seriously, that I think the steampunk genre can really benefit from — I’d love to see more like this, and I can’t wait to keep following Carriger’s writing, hopefully for many years to come.

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