Review of Changeless by Gail Carriger
by Gail Carriger
Right, so you don’t have a soul, which means any supernatural creature you touch turns back into a mortal. Handy, but also it makes you a kind of threat to the supernatural community. Queen Victoria makes you muhjah, which is a fancy term for “I have a bureaucratic position as well as target painted on my back.” And you marry a werewolf member of the peerage. Who is Scottish. Then, suddenly, a phenomenon that replicates your preternatural mortality effect across supernaturals in a wide radius shows up in London before migrating north to Scotland. So, of course, you need to investigate, but somehow your snide half-sister and your ditzy fashion-challenged friend manage to inveigle their way into your dirigible party, where the three of you are joined at the last minute by a cross-dressing hat-making French inventor lady scientist who hates the guts out of your French maid.
This kind of thing happens to me all the time.
Alexia Tarabotti (or now Maccon) is a great protagonist, especially when juxtaposed with the romance-trope–heavy setting that Gail Carriger has created here. Though she shares many characteristics with the hapless romantic heroine, she also has a strong sense of agency and a desire for autonomy. We saw this to endearing effect in Soulless, which can be read as Alexia’s struggle to find independence in a society where women of her class have very little, and preternaturals even less so. Changeless is a case of “be careful what you wish for.” Alexia now has even more rank and power, is married to a man of rank and similar power—and who is a ruggedly handsome, sexy werewolf type to boot—and can essentially run her own life, more or less. But she spends most of the book playing catch-up, realizing that she still has a lot to learn about supernatural politics and her own nature as a preternatural.
Carriger does interesting work here, because while Soulless was an effective parody of romance (and even supernatural romance), that does not lend itself well to an ongoing series with the same protagonist. Alexia is married, has settled down, is no longer on the market and “lookin’ for love.” So while Carriger can occasionally invoke a romance novel trope here or there, she has to rely more heavily on the other aspect of her parody, which is Victorian society.
My review of Soulless touches on how Carriger portrays an alternative version of Victorian England, and I criticize her for not going as deep as I would have wanted. Changeless makes me rethink this position a little bit. It’s not so much that Carriger is parodying Victorian society itself—she’s parodying our present perception of Victorian society. A lot of what we think of as “Victorian” in terms of morals and attitudes towards sex, gender, etc., are actually tropes themselves—and like most tropes, many of them have a kernel of truth, but they have evolved and taken lives of their own. In such characters as Felicity, Ivy, Alexia’s mother, Lord Akeldama, et al., Carriger attains a hyperbolic state of satirizing our ideas about what was scandalous and what was permitted in Victorian society.
I’m still not convinced it works, mind you—but I have a little more respect for what Carriger is doing here.
Carriger’s portrayal of sexual desire and the romantic interactions between Alexia and Conall was also something I ended up re-evaluating part-way through the book. At first I was somewhat annoyed by the frequent interjection of scenes in which these two verge upon getting it on—intimations and innuendo, and a lot of talk about nudity, though no actual graphic depictions. It’s not that I mind such scenes, nor do I object to the way Carriger is unapologetically depicting Alexia as a person with a sex drive and desires beyond being a sex object. That’s all well and good. But the frequency and repetitive nature of the scenes seemed like a tiresome digression from the rest of the plot and more salient character development.
I do like it when books can change my mind, and it’s nice when my opinion of something a book does changes as I continue to read. In this case, I started to think about this portrayal of sexuality and nudity within the context of how Carriger is deconstructing romance novels. That’s when I realized that she’s really trying to reclaim women’s sexuality in literature when it is incredibly dominated and perverted by the commodified depiction of sexuality in the romance genre.
There is very little that is feminist about a romance novel. On the surface, sure, it seems to be about empowering women by letting them read about women doing naughty and titillating acts. And therein lies the problem: the enjoyment, here, comes from the transgressive nature of the reading. These acts are so titillating precisely because, in general, our society does not approve of the sexual empowerment of women. Growing up, women get told their bodies are scary and complicated and mysterious and will hurt them for the rest of their lives, but they better deal with it and not complain, because men don’t want to hear about it! “Sex positive” feminism is a thing and is growing louder, and that’s great. But generally our society is still incredibly sexually repressed. We are not much better than our conception of Victorian sexuality—and worse, we’ve papered over our problems with a veneer of “sexual liberation” that is more illusion than any tangible improvement.
So here’s where Carriger and Changeless differ: the nudity and sexuality here is not transgressive. It’s not strange within the context of Alexia’s world—it’s unusual for someone like Alexia to marry a werewolf, maybe, but if anything it has only improved her standing in society. True, this world maintains the kind of rigid gender roles and expectations for comportment we often associate with Victorian society—Ivy’s innocence with regards to kissing seems to be poking fun at this. But in her depiction of Alexia and Conall’s relationship, now that Alexia is a married woman, they sleep two to a bed and have plenty of sexy times. There’s none of this separate beds, women are frigid nonsense.
I don’t really have a complex grasp of the true nature of Victorian attitudes towards sexuality. And, unless you happen to be an expert in that period, neither, probably, do you—we just share a kind of cultural conception of the time period. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. Because I’m also pretty sure Victorian society didn’t really have werewolves or vampires living openly—but here, in Carriger’s alternative universe where telegraphs don’t work but aetherographic transmitters do, that happens to be a thing.
Carriger has hit upon the fundamental feminist truth of writing fantasy, which is that even when your setting is based on an actual historical time and place, you can change things for the better. If Carriger is injecting supernatural creatures into Victorian England, she sure as hell can also play around with performance of gender and sexual expression.
Now, as with my earlier comment about her satire of our ideas about Victorian times, whether all of this works is another matter entirely. Let’s just say that I love the characters and love this world Carriger has created, but the plot of Changeless is kind of a drag in comparison. The mystery is flaccid and dull; most of the tension seems contrived. This is particularly true when it comes to the finale, in which Carriger delivers a twist that sets up the next book rather neatly—but she requires Conall to behave, shall we say, far too hyperbolically for my tastes.
Changeless reaffirms my impression that the Parasol Protectorate series is a promising one with great ideas that don’t always live up in their execution. By my personal criteria, story always has to come first—but great ideas, while never quite making up for a lacklustre story, at least give me a lot to think about, and write about, and that’s always good. This is about on par with a lot of other ongoing, character-based fantasy series, where the individual books are not themselves all that remarkable, but the overall world and adventure becomes something altogether worthwhile.