“Changeless” a Deliciously Fun, If Moderately Pointless, Sequel

Quite possibly the only work of steampunk I’ve ever read, Gail Carriger’s 2009 paranormal-of-manners, Soulless, is very near to my heart. Coupling its charming nineteenth century sensibilities with an engrossing secret society plot, it reaps the benefits of many categories––romance, alternate history, paranormal, mystery––and skirts their distinctions with aplomb.

To the best of my admittedly faulty recollection, Soulless is a nearly perfect book.

Though equally funny (Gail Carriger is now my personal Queen of Sensible Chuckles), there’s something missing from Changeless that makes it read, at times, like a side quest. The peril involved feels fleeting; the introductions of the new supporting characters can’t seem to hold onto more depth than would befit a cameo.

The accoutrements are all in top form: the romance remains delightfully snarky, Carriger’s inventions and anachronisms are wickedly playful, and her integration of the paranormal into the political is as thoughtful-yet-snide as ever. But the engine, the A-plot, the beating heart, is untethered.

The central mystery is neither personally relevant enough for emotional stakes nor urgent enough for immediate ones, leaving it in the middle distance with Alexia, our lead, and company as casual observers. And, though Changeless does end with a traditional climax, it’s never more powerful than a fizzle.

At curtain, Alexia Maccon, whose courtship in Soulless ended amiably, with a loving, socially advantageous, and rather sarcastic marriage, is navigating one of her werewolf husband’s many eccentricities. This time, though, Lord Maccon’s nonsense cannot be abided by: there’s an entire encampment of werewolves on the front lawn.

As funny as this opening sequence is, however, it has only passing relevance to the real gamechanger in Changeless: in a sizable portion of London, the powers of vampires, werewolves, and ghosts suddenly vanish, as if a preternatural (such as Alexia herself) were touching them all at once. The plague of humanization then ceases, for a time, but reports soon emerge of the same happening in Scotland, where, incidentally, Lord Maccon has unfinished business with his old werewolf pack.

Where it concerns intrigue, the story from there is woefully lacking. There are worries abounding that the plague of humanization could by harnessed by or against groups of supernaturals––powerful hives of vampires being a particular concern––but they’re irreparably distant from the action at hand, possibly because Carriger chooses to isolate it at a manor in the Scottish countryside, while she’s set all the related scheming in London. It should be noted, though, that while she has an answer for that in interludes following other characters as they try to wrangle the situation in London, she doesn’t lean on it nearly enough to make full use of it.

But, all told, the kicker for this ultimately underwhelming mystery is probably its resolution, which hits somewhat like a nevermind upon its reveal. By now, Carriger has added a couple assassination attempts on Alexia to spice things up, and even suggested that the culprit is with us as we speak! Were it not for her lack of commitment to this addition, it might have meant some extra gumption approaching the climax, but because Changeless isn’t willing to go all in and put forth the extra time to genuinely cast the other characters in suspicion, it’s just a fleeting thought.

I’m sure that, by now, I’ve made Changeless sound like a disaster, but incidentally, despite what I’d be quick to call its structural unsoundness, it isn’t, mostly owing to its style and Carriger’s talent for pacing.

Changeless is, at its foundation, a story in which the characters spend a sizable chunk of the page time traveling to the primary setting, threats are posited but precious few actual consequences faced, and the answer to the mystery is more-or-less a coincidence.

It is all of these things, yes, and, also, rather fun, besides.

I’m still kind of at a loss as to how the book pulled it off. My prevailing theory is that Carriger leans into the fact that most readers aren’t necessarily picking up Changeless to find out why supernaturals are suddenly and temporarily going human, but for either the delight of her cheeky take on the 1870s, or the romance, or the charming supporting cast.

However much this begets a neglect of the central mystery, it nudges the book to deliver on these elements, such that most of its fun is, strictly speaking, irrelevant? Like, the side dishes are far and away more tasty than the main course.

Far from taking away from the page-to-page reading experience, as it might in hands less tactful than Carriger’s, it makes all the pastries and candies slipped in-between bites, of, well, the meal, seem complete in themselves. The author is almost indulging you: feeding you a shiny steampunk toy here, a Lord-and-Lady-Maccon moment there, a farcical subplot in tastes throughout. You’ve been good, dear reader. Have a tart.

Does Lord Akeldama need to be in this book for reasons that can’t be hand-waved away? No. But I would be loathe to banish his presence from this book’s dinner table. (And why would you––he’s delightful.)

As much as Changeless is, really, a let-down from Soulless, it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like a great deal of what there is to love about the first book is also present in the second. Without the substance of a solid A-plot and an apt sense of suspense, yes, but this is hardly the first time I’ve skipped dinner in favor of desert, and I don’t doubt I’ll do so again.

What I Read in August

Hello, and welcome back to the blog! Before I dive into my August reads, I wanted to mention that, with the start of school approaching, I’ll be cutting back my posting to once a week. Tuesdays will be my day moving forward, though I hope a stray Friday post will find its way here every now and then. Now: onto the books!


64. Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

In this sequel to Sanderson’s YA space romp, Skyward, we join our lead and newly-minted pilot Spensa as she undertakes a mission to the heart of enemy territory in disguise. After a few too many plot-enabling coincidences in the first act, Starsight‘s thrusters kick in and the book roars forward with impressive gumption. Sanderson writes a space-dogfight with energy rivaling that of Star Wars, and gifts us with a lovable new ensemble that well and enough makes up for the fact that we see so little of the old one. Diplomacy also steps up to play a surprising role in this otherwise war-minded take on a galaxy in distress, forcing Spensa to contend with the limits of her––and humanity’s––trigger-happy approach to conflict. Complex, expansive, and with a devastating cliffhanger ending, Starsight does its job very well: I’m chomping at the bit for book three.


65. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik’s loose retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin” is a book of many talents. Gorgeous world, generous characterizations, rich character dynamics, and incredible complexity abound in this absorbing wonder of a book. Novik’s careful attention to the everyday lives of her characters does as much or more to form the sinews of her fantasy as the magic itself, reveling in trade, candlelight, and craft. The romances, of course, like the one in Uprooted, are catnip to anyone who has a taste for love stories of the Death-and-the-Maiden variety, but some of the book’s most moving portraits are of family, its every page as welcoming as the warmest fireplace. (Reviewed here.)


66. The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

I don’t consider myself a denizen of the historical genre, but for Kate Forsyth, I’ll make an exception. In The Wild Girl, set during the Napoleonic Wars, Forsyth follows a young Dortchen Wild as she falls for one of the neighbor boys, a young scholar by the name of none other than Wilhelm Grimm. The real-life Dortchen Wild is actually documented as the source of many of the fairy tales compiled and edited by the Brothers Grimm, and, with precious few liberties, The Wild Girl fits them into a compelling dramatic framework, bolstered by a moving look at the effects of war on the middle class. Though the book sometimes drifts into sensationalism, it remains softly, stirringly human.


67. The Wicked King by Holly Black

After entertaining a middling opinion of The Cruel Prince, the very last thing I expected was for its sequel to sweep me off my feet. By expanding the scope of her world, amping up the personal stakes and wielding enigma like a dagger, Holly Black crafts a sequel that is dizzyingly fun and full of surprises, both personal and political. On the personal front, The Wicked King boasts the defining moments of one of young adult’s finest enemies-to-lovers couples, which, at long last, I finally have no choice but to root for. On the political, though, Black doesn’t neglect to keep pace: court intrigue, rival kingdoms, and a fair share of spying anchor the deliciously thorny romance for a singular fantasy treat. (Reviewed here.)


68. A Dress for the Wicked by Autumn Krause

This book’s pitch promises couture enlivened with intrigue: when a teenage seamstress gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to compete in a design competition, she must fend off doubt, elitism…and sabotage. A Dress for the Wicked, however, is plagued by weaknesses endemic to the contest setup, from personal stakes floundering under competitive ones to contestant-character soup. Things pick up after a lumbering first half, but not enough to compensate for the peril feeling wholly arbitrary. With a supporting lineup of mostly flimsy archetypes, a stale and tensionless romance, and blunt, unrefined prose, the book evokes a gown in substantial need of tailoring.


69. Great Goddesses by Nikita Gill

Nikita Gill’s re-imagining of Greek myth holds poems of varying potency. My favorites are all the ones that inject tenderness where we’ve previously imagined cruelty: what Gill does with Hephaestus and Aphrodite, Ares and Calliope, and Hades and Persephone marks, I think, the height of this collection. Gossamer-delicate, liberal with humanity, and refreshingly sincere. Sometimes, though, where Gill is more overt with her themes, they lose the meat of their substance, leaving the reader with little more than bones to chew on. Great Goddesses is well-suited to portraiture and less so to manifesto, but strong with imagery across the board––even in poems I didn’t like, I have phrases tabbed for future reference.


70. Reality Boy by A. S. King

Every time I read another A.S. King, I find myself wishing it was Please Ignore Vera Dietz, her incredible debut. Reality Boy is no exception: stripped of the gritty fabulism that lines her other books, it has only realism to rest on, which, in this volume, makes for a clumsy stance that leaves it apt to lose its footing. King’s interrogation of reality TV and its human damages is powerful, but her plotting and scene structure isn’t; I often had to read chapters over again because the whole thing escaped me. Though suited to the character, the narration is both vulgar and abrupt, yielding a reading experience that left me struggling to keep up and feeling punished for doing so.


71. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid’s tale of war and migration turns a keen eye on policy failure where it concerns aiding refugees, but mostly owing to his choice of style, I struggled to appreciate it. The book contains one element of magic realism, but its use is sparse and purely utilitarian, which comes as a sore disappointment to any fool (me) who picked it up for that reason in particular. Hamid is much more interested in his characters, but his approach to style tends to keep them at arm’s length. Pages and pages will pass with no dialogue whatsoever, for instance, the scenes not so much transpiring as being recounted to the reader. All of this is intentional, of course, but it makes the characters feel like strangers even by the book’s end, their substance closed to us by the author’s pen.


72. When the Sea Is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen

This quiet fantasy from 2012 holds many little treasures: an interesting, Victorian-tinged maritime setting, a unique approach to the love triangle, and an elegant use of sea-based eldritch horror are chief among its charms. But where fictional caste is concerned, Hellisen falters, falling into the extremist member of the minority-as-villain trap in a way that shines unfavorably on the narrative’s ultimate deference to the status quo. Still, the book’s depiction of the crumbling splendor of once-great houses of wealth is ripe for exploration, as is the internalized elitism in Felicita, When The Sea Is Rising Red‘s fugitive heiress heroine. At just under three hundred pages, though, the novel’s lofty aims of a revolution begun and ended feel rushed, and Felicita’s development, likewise, unfinished.


73. The Betrayed by Kiera Cass

Kiera Cass’ latest duology isn’t for everyone, but there is more to love here than just a re-run of The Selection. Both volumes, The Betrayed in particular, are heavy on family dynamics, paying just as much page time to our protagonist’s adopted mother figures as to the romance and the (woefully) shaky plot. Some of my hopes from The Betrothed, which I, seemingly alone in this, loved, were dashed, but this book mostly makes up for it. In subtle ways, through small tokens and intimate scenes of character development, Cass knows, just as well as any of her books’ love interests, how to win a girl’s heart. (Reviewed here.)


74. The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen

Where When The Sea is Rising Red is coy about its fictional caste system, Margaret Owen’s debut is uniquely concerned with hers––and its troubled bottom rung. Known as the Crows, it is their lot to contain a plague ravaging the land of Sabor, and they face unprovoked violence and apathy from authority figures as they do so. While there’s plenty of on-the-page danger, however, there’s something about Owen’s prose that keeps the suspense from singing. There’s more than enough elsewhere to make up for it, though: a thoughtful look at a corrupt and unequal society, a textured approach to worldbuilding, and strong relationship dynamics (both platonic and romantic) anchor this sturdy, purposeful first installment.


So concludes August! How was your reading month? Feel free to tell me about your favorites, least favorites, and general bookish antics, in the comments. 💕

“Spinning Silver” is a Fairy Tale of the Highest Caliber

Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is a wonder of a fairy tale: it has a stirring Beauty-and-the-Beast love story, a rich and varied use of the dark forest motif, and an almost domestic focus on the ordinary in the lives of her characters, showing us their families and their chores and their fireplaces. This framework must have been certified somewhere, to be unimpeachably good at mining stories of epic scale for maximum humanity, because it works like a charm in Spinning Silver, and three times over, at that.

Here, though, instead of the forest, Novik turns to snow and ice for a tale that is as much about frost and its effects on rye yields as it is about marriages, magical bargains, and portals between worlds. With this approach, Spinning Silver is more than utterly magical; it is utterly matronly, deeply concerned with the women that much of fantasy forgets––mothers, grandmothers, maidservants, and peasant girls who don’t get to marry princes.

In fact, the book is so magical precisely because it is so mundane, returning to us as readers the domestic labor that so often gets stripped away when fairy tales are adapted to high fantasy: Rumpelstiltskin is about spinning thread, after all.

Nowhere in the book is this better embodied that in the care Novik takes with her beautifully-rendered protagonist. Before we meet Miryem, a young Jewish woman whose talent for finance gets her swept into a magical crisis via a hilarious misunderstanding, we must first meet her circumstances: the first thing we hear is that her father, a moneylender, has been brought to the edge of bankruptcy by townspeople who openly refuse to pay him back.

As a child, Miryem watches her warmhearted father back down from disputes and more-or-less forfeit his money out of politeness for years. Spurred on by her mother’s worsening illness, Miryem sets out to improve her family’s lot by taking up moneylending in her father’s stead, and it is at a stranger’s doorstep, with a ledger book waiting for a fresh entry open on her desk at home, that her fairy tale begins.

(Incidentally, I will forever be indebted to every instance of another character referring to the math Miryem uses to keep her family’s accounts as “magic.” Wonder and practicality are not mutually exclusive in folklore, and little kernels like this show us just how well Novik knows it.)

I could write buckets from here about the heady delight of how Novik binds Miryem’s choice to step in for her father to the motifs at the heart of the story, from the “coldness” she has to take on in order to settle the accounts of people who don’t want to, or can’t, directly pay, to the novel’s slow and gratifying reclamation of the language used to describe pragmatic, determined women like Miryem––”icy,” “harsh,” and, again, “cold.” (This is also pivotal in the introduction of the Staryk, Spinning Silver‘s wintry fey, and how they’re re-imagined over the course of the novel.)

Suffice it to say, Novik’s reinvention of her symbols is one of the most elegant I’ve read in recent years. Sophisticated and thoughtful, yes, but also extremely generous with the characters: it affirms rather than sands away their frankly understandable “coldness,” affirming it as a choice of love for the sake of the people and communities they care about, as opposed to the solitary, selfish way we’re used to icy women being characterized.

Alone, Miryem’s plot would still be enchanting, but Spinning Silver also features two deuteragonists and their perspectives: Wanda, who comes to work for Miryem’s family to pay off her father’s debt (and also just to escape him, period), and Irina, a duke’s daughter, who’s staring down the barrel of an unwanted marriage.

There’s a certain beauty in Spinning Silver as a patchwork story. Novik is in no rush to bring the plot up to a fast clip, so scenes linger and ostensibly simple revelations will simmer for the reader before the characters, amidst the workings of their daily lives, come to them. There’s as much excitement in watching the storylines creep together at a slow trawl as there is in watching them actually meet. And with multiple tabs open, so to speak, Spinning Silver makes itself rich in what it seems like so much of storytelling is strapped for: time.

You feel the months pass in one of the threads while in the other, some vital secret is being revealed. The pace isn’t slow so much as it is deliberate, a welcome temper for fantasy’s customary high stakes and great deeds. (Also optimal for the cultivation of a pair of absolutely spellbinding romances, but I find those best discovered in surprise, so I’ll leave it at that.)

Alas, Spinning Silver, like all books, must end, but Novik, of course, nails that too, with an answer to the story’s crisis that respects the humanity of all the members of its ensemble, and puts the power of naming (as per the original Rumpelstiltskin tale––loosely retold here, though marvelously so) to use right where it’s needed, but not necessarily where it’s expected.

There should be a name for a plot twist whose thrill lies in the very process of discovery, to set it apart from a plot twist whose power lies in its ability to shock. Spinning Silver isn’t exactly a book that will have you gasping, but it did have me grinning ear-to-ear as all the answers, emotional and symbolic, came into words precisely as I’d hoped. Say it, say it! I found myself urging my heavy paperback copy.

And then it did.