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.