Prudence (The Custard Protocol No.1) – Gail Carriger
As the daughter of a vampire, a werewolf and a preternatural, Lady Prudence Akeldama – better known as Rue – is not quite like other girls. For instance, when she touches a supernatural creature she can steal their shape, which is tremendously useful for fleeing an awkward party or winning an argument. When her adoptive father Lord Akeldama invites her into a secret tea scheme, Rue leaps at the chance. Not only does she get the very latest in dirigible technology, she can float off to India to try her hand at a little espionage and bring her friends along for the ride. Things do not go to plan. From an encounter with a parasol-thieving lioness to becoming accidentally embroiled in a shapeshifter uprising, Rue is in well over her head. On the bright side, she’s learning how to really work a tail.
Do not come into this book expecting it to make sense. Though this is the first book in the series, it’s really the next installment in Carriger’s earlier Parasol Protectorate series (which begins with Soulless) and relies upon some knowledge of those characters. It’s also completely ridiculous, sometimes in a good way – Carriger has a knack for sparkling one-liners – and sometimes just frustrating. Indian culture and religion are treated with the same flippancy as everything else, but it comes across as disrespectful rather than playful. I found the beginning a bit slow and the ending was a mess. Still, if you enjoy comic steampunk, you may want to follow up with The Custard Protocol No.2, Imprudence, slated for release in mid 2016.
The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library No.1) – Genevieve Cogman
Irene is accustomed to secrecy. As an agent of the Library, she has access to a multitude of alternate worlds and may be sent anywhere, at any time, to acquire treasures for the voracious collections of her superiors. She doesn’t need to make the universe a better place – she just wants to keep the books safe. Saddled with a very suspicious mission and an even stranger assistant, it gets hard to maintain that professional detachment. Even the Library has its urban legends. And there are stories Irene never wants to meet…
This is a steampunk fantasy fusion that can’t be taken too seriously, but doesn’t overdo its eccentricities either. A slow start leads into a cheerfully bizarre adventure, with cool-headed bibliophile Irene doing her best to be unimpressed by everything. The relationships between characters are unexpectedly, enjoyably complicated, and while the conclusion was a bit weak, the ideas involved are intriguing. A sequel, The Masked City, is set for release in early December.
The Clockwork Scarab – Colleen Gleason
Chronicle Books, 2013
In the city of London, in the year 1889, the most strenuous activity deemed appropriate for a young lady’s mind is capturing the attention of a respectable suitor, but when girls start turning up dead a pair of secret investigators are recruited from the great dynasties of the day. Mina Holmes, still struggling with her own mother’s disappearance, is determined to prove herself the equal of her famous uncle. Evaline Stoker, last of a long line of vampire slayers, has never had the chance to fully exercise her abilities. Seizing an opportunity to apply their unconventional skills, they join forces to find a killer, following a trail that will lead them from the darkest corners of London to the most glittering circles of high society.
That sounded like a wonderful premise, which is part of why I was so terribly disappointed with this book. The writing is repetitive, scattered with jarringly modern and American turns of phrase, the plot is incoherent and barely any part of it is satisfactorily resolved. Even for the first book in a projected series (the sequel is slated for release in October of this year) there are an extraordinary number of loose ends. The protagonists’ abilities are thoroughly overstated, badly demonstrated and repeatedly undermined by secondary characters who keep up or outpace them easily, despite the girls being supposedly uniquely gifted. I truly wish I had something more positive to say.
Etiquette & Espionage – Gail Carringer (Finishing School No.1)
At the age of fourteen, Sophronia Temminnick shows no sign whatsoever of becoming a respectable young lady. Following a disastrous incident with a dumbwaiter, she is sent away to finishing school, where her mother expects her to learn deportment and dancing and the correct way to curtsey. This particular school, however, teaches rather more than that. A true lady makes an art of misdirection and deception, chooses the correct poison for any occasion, can fight off a werewolf with smelling salts and bring down a vampire with a hairpin. At Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Sophronia will learn how to finish everything.
I’m not sure quite what to make of Etiquette & Espionage. It is steampunk of the overblown variety, loaded with exaggerated Victorian hyperbole and ridiculous names that would fit better in a children’s book, but the underlying idea is very clever, and there is some delightfully sly wit. If the story had been taken just a bit more seriously, it could have been wonderful. The series continues with Curtsies & Conspiracies.
Cold Steel – Kate Elliott (Spiritwalker No.3)
The world is changing. The Wild Hunt has slaughtered the ruler of the Taino Kingdom and abducted a powerful cold mage to feed the spirit courts it serves. The exiled general Camjiata is returning to Europa to lead a revolution. At the centre of it all is Catherine Barahal, daughter of a renegade Amazon and the Master of the Wild Hunt. While the traditional balance of power breaks down into a chaos of discontent, defiance and outright rebellion, her priorities are simple: to save her husband and reunite with her cousin. All she has to do first is escape a murder trial, elude the wrath of a rogue fire mage and survive the storm of two worlds at war…
The third installment in the Spiritwalker trilogy brings Cat and Bee’s adventures to an explosive conclusion. The series has been an ambitiously original blend of steampunk, alternate history and epic fantasy, and this last book throws everything on the table. I had mixed feelings about Cat in this one – with Bee, she’s wonderful, but I felt her relationship with Andevai progressed to the detriment of her character. Of course, Bee makes everything wonderful just by being in the scene, so there’s that. This has been a solid, well-crafted and innovative series and all the threads come together for a strong ending.
The Queen is Dead – Kate Locke
Xandra Vardan used to think she was normal – just a half human, half vampire fighter dedicated to protecting her undead queen, which is about as normal as it gets in her world. Now she knows that pretty much everything she was ever told about herself is a lie. She has goblins demanding a coronation, her werewolf boyfriend’s pack pushing for a formal alliance, vampires trying to convict her for murder, and humans freaking out over the fact she exists at all. Not to mention that unusual halvies like her have been disappearing and her brother Val has vanished while investigating it. This is Xandra’s new normal and she is so not amused.
This the second Immortal Empire novel and doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first, God Save the Queen. The plot has less punch, a slower pace and a less distinct storyline. The writing is also clunky and rather repetitive. Xandra has lost some of her confidence and built up the inevitable heroine’s guilt complex, which disappointed me, but she was still fun company and there are some interesting follow-ups to the reveals of book one. The third book of the series, Long Live the Queen, is due for release in November.
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters – G.W. Dahlquist
Miss Celeste Temple did not come to the city seeking intrigue and conspiracy; she intended to get married. When her fiance abruptly ends their engagement and compounds the insult by offering no explanation for his change of heart, however, Miss Temple is determined to find out why. The search for answers will cause her life to fatefully intersect with two of the most unlikely men – poetry lover, library patron and killer for hire Cardinal Chang and the dutiful German surgeon Doctor Abelard Svenson – and take the three of them to more sinister places than they could ever have imagined.
I was drawn into this book by an irresistable title and kept there by an engaging, intricate steampunk adventure. The plot is skilfully crafted, different events seen from different eyes slowly revealing an epic conspiracy. Dahlquist’s writing is clear and crisp, consistent with the style of the era, and his three protagonists are flawed, complicated, interesting people. I had a few reservations about the female characterisation, but never to the point I wanted to stop reading. The intrigue continues in a second novel, The Dark Volume.