“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.

“The Betrayed” A Messy Yet Lovable Conclusion

This review contains a major spoiler for the ending of the first book in this duology, The Betrothed. Like, in the first paragraph.


Following 2020’s The Betrothed (reviewed here), Kiera Cass’ latest could’ve gone almost anywhere. In a move generally unbefitting her fluffy love story brand (though not entirely––need I remind you all of The One?), Cass married her protagonist, Hollis, off to her lowly but charming underdog suitor, and then proceeded to off him.

Damn, Silas. Rest in peace.

When we catch up with Hollis in the pages of The Betrayed, she’s on the way to her husband’s home country of Isolte with what’s left of her adopted family in tow: a mother-in-law, a sister-in-law, and a surly cousin-in-law who seems to want nothing more than to wipe her off the face of the Earth. King Quinten of Isolte, the monarch at whose hands Hollis suspects her wedding was turned into a slaughter, remains in power, as-yet unchallenged. At the end of The Betrothed, Hollis vowed she would bring him to justice, but how Cass was going to manage it in the follow up was anyone’s guess.

To her credit, or possibly against it, The Betrayed answers this question with a fairy-tale ease reminiscent of the endings in Shannon Hale’s novels: arguably too convenient, but satisfying nonetheless. There must be some note made, however, for how this move jilts the expectations laid out in book one. With a final note like that, one would think we’re in for much more trouble in the sequel than we actually meet.

It certainly doesn’t help that all of these resolution-enabling revelations arrive in a rushed cascade during the last hundred pages. The first two hundred, ironically, do precisely what The Betrothed did best: a slow and grounded approach to court intrigue, fronted by mostly personal stakes, all conducted on an intimate scale. When Cass works this way, the book works, running on a 1-to-1 conversion of character choices to plot progression, where it doesn’t seem entirely out of place for Hollis to be just as concerned about a certain love interest’s feelings as she is about who will eventually end up with Isolte’s crown.

But when Cass doesn’t work this way, opting instead for the drama of actual power actually changing hands, her knack for orchestrating conflict all but collapses. Complications are shoved out of the way, obstacles disappear, and the characters’ plans, generally, pan out exactly as predicted.

Admittedly, all of this sounds extremely grim, but it might not have been that much of a problem were it not for the predicament of The Betrayed being second in a duology. The problems in the final third of the book’s construction are, yes, substantial, but the simple tincture of time could’ve gone a long way, seeing as it’s beginning to seem across the board like a crashed second and final volume is becoming the new “middle book syndrome.”

Anyhow, taking more than one chapter to depose a head of state would’ve made a world of difference for the pacing. And some breathing room would’ve gone a long way towards keeping the ending from feeling like a dizzying array of crises introduced and swiftly rectified.

One thing will always rescue Kiera Cass books in the end, though, and that is her conviction in writing a truly sincere set of character dynamics. There’s no sense here of the shifting alliances among the major characters that worked so well in The Betrothed, but there is a warm and earnest family component that stays interesting throughout, despite the characters involved never being at one another’s throats.

Well, with one exception. Etan, the aforementioned surly cousin-in-law, has a bone to pick with Hollis for the better part of the book, but even in that case, Cass makes it personal without ever making it ruthless. It may speak ill of the book at large that she gives Etan more time to overcome his grudge than she does the toppling of more than one (!!!) reign, but regardless, that choice was a good one, at least for the development of his character.

And (possible spoiler, though you probably figured this out from a cursory glance at the blurb), it certainly doesn’t hurt the romance between him and Hollis, one that offers a solid, slower-burning counterpart to the one that was cultivated and then, swiftly, crushed in The Betrothed.

When it comes to getting me to squee over her couples, Cass has hacked some critical reward pathway in my brain: the way she uses a shared sense of obligation to push these two together meshes extremely well with the elevated stakes, and The Betrayed is keenly aware of the importance of small tokens in building its case for the pair, from the starring role of a handkerchief to the heavy symbolism of the characters’ clothes.

This particular style of romance puts The Betrayed in a league with something like The Guinevere Deception, another story that knows the importance of idle talk between the ladies of the nobility, and lingers, too, on gestures like jewelry and jousting favors. In The Guinivere Deception‘s sequel, no shortage of ink is spilled in describing the planning of a festival, and the same is true for The Betrayed‘s particular style of politicking, which I find as compelling as it is under-discussed in the general cloak-and-dagger affect of fantasy at large.

The great thing about Cass’ characterization of Hollis in all this is that it marches to this very standard. When Hollis triumphs, it’s because she got someone on her side through friendly means; stayed her hand, listened, and moved forward with honest, well-meaning intentions.

Is it tame for todays’ YA landscape? Yes. Does it mean the more bombastic plot points make a jarring counterpart that’s difficult to reconcile with the rest of the book? Also yes. But Hollis is refreshing as a heroine who’s true-hearted and means it, and that makes me regard The Betrayed with fondness, even if mostly for her sake.

“Instant Karma” An Instantly Charming Summer Romance

Marissa Meyer’s prolific collection of gallivanting sci-fi (Cinder, Renegades) makes a contemporary set in a tiny coastal town a surprising choice, but her disarming use of character and a witty but completely sincere approach to writing it make the genre a natural fit for a writer whose domain is normally superheroes and spaceships.

Meyer’s lead is the pitch-perfect Prudence Barnett, who never lets an assignment fall to the wayside––even if her lab partner, the clubbable yet chronically tardy Quint Erickson, is more than happy to brush it off. Prudence, as a character, is definitely an extreme, and if you’re iffy about dialing up a character’s high-strung tendencies to comedic effect, she might read to you as disingenuous, but her habitual captiousness and teeth-grinding is tied with strong sinews to the heart of her character, and even when it’s transparently impossible to take her side, her insecurities have real substance, alongside the hilarious misunderstandings they set in motion.

Prudence realizing the virtue of giving others the benefit of the doubt is definitely a revelation the reader can see coming, but Meyer’s character development, as well as being self-aware, is also generous. Prudence doesn’t “loosen up” by the end in a way that condemns her. Rather, she gets to be thoughtful and particular; flexible and confident. Meyer recognizes and pokes fun at her foibles without ever being genuinely mean-spirited about it, and that makes all the difference.

Also, to bolster this widening of horizons, Meyer includes some environmental themes, with her characters working at a marine mammal rescue center. She misses a couple chances to give us more––a vegan character picks a fight over some leather boots, for example, and we hear nothing of the pitfalls of pleather––but on the whole, she does justice to the difficult tightrope of being an ordinary person and trying not to cause the environment harm.

Where the book fumbles is in the third act, when Meyer shrinks a potential conflict so small its narrative powers are almost completely foiled. In the rush to get the pair together and all the ducks in a row, Instant Karma loses the chance to burn a bridge and pay page service to the fallout. The result is a quick fix to a deep rift that comes way too easy. The book falters where it should be fixed on affirming itself, shying away from consequence where it should ultimately matter most. Its enthusiasm and earnestness carry it through, but the awkward twist and its snappy resolution are out of place in a work that otherwise embraces complexity. The ending still satisfies, in other words––but not as much as it could.

Instant Karma is worth it for the romance alone, though: Meyer mastered the banter-y, opposites-attract dynamic in The Lunar Chronicles, and wields it with joyful precision here, to graceful effect. That, and the sheer unabashed nerdiness that sings from the page whenever her characters discuss music or sea animals, and this book is a surefire winner for anyone in search of something sunny. By those standards, Instant Karma is radiant.

This review was first posted earlier this year on Goodreads.