By David Nilsen
If you crossed a Jane Austen novel with a Stephen King novel and cast Zooey Deschanel in the movie adaptation, you’d be close to imagining Gail Carriger‘s newest book Prudence. The first book in her new Custard Protocol series, Prudence is set in a steampunk Victorian England in which travel is accomplished by dirigible and vampires and werewolves form powerful sects within Britain’s upper crust. The main character is Lady Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama (Rue for short), a “metanatural,” a human who can steal the form and abilities of a vampire or werewolf merely by touching the unfortunate being. She is the only one in the known world, and thereby adored and hated with equal measure by various groups and individuals. She is the child of werewolves and the adopted daughter of a powerful (and fabulously gay) vampire. She is gifted a dirigible by said vampire, christens it The Spotted Custard, and is sent on a mission to India to abscond with a very valuable new strain of tea plants. Her irascible group of friends accompany her, and various daring, cute, unlikely, and occasionally naked hijinks ensue.
The tone of the book is intentionally and unapologetically twee, so if twee is not your thing, steer clear. Rue and her friends, Primrose, Quesnel, and Percy, get into silly arguments, prize tea above all else, are always impeccably dressed, and observe the myriad minutiae of polite manners and customs of the British empire of old, despite holding social congress with vampires and werebeasts of various persuasions and floating in a zeppelin painted like a ladybug. If you know what you’re getting into with this book, it’s a fun diversion. But what you’re getting into is something pretty specific and potentially cloying.
Carriger already has a devoted following for her Parasol Protectorate series, which is set in the same world as Prudence and features Rue’s mother, Alexia. I haven’t read those books, but I imagine they are similarly entertaining and lighthearted distractions with a propensity for admiring their own admittedly pleasing cravats and tea kettles just a bit too proudly. This all sounds like I didn’t like Prudence, and that isn’t the case. I think Carriger has built a fascinating and original world for her stories, her characters are enjoyable and likable, and she can certainly turn a clever phrase. She is unabashed in making this book exactly what she wanted it to be, and I applaud that success.
Rue considered. “I think, my dear Spoo, you might activate the gangplank drawback mechanism. No more unexpected visitors today. Do you concur?”
Spoo snapped to attention. “Yes, Lady Captain.” And went to round up the necessary decklings to assist her in this task.
“Yes, Lady Captain?”
“Keep an eye to the accessories, please. There may be a lioness around with a taste for parasols.”
“Is that some kind of code, Lady Captain?”
“My dear young man, I only wish it were.” With which Rue returned to her nap and dreamed of cold tea.
– page 165
I do have two complaints to make with the book, however.
First, parts of the book could be construed as a somewhat racist. Or at least, sympathetic to colonialism, which is basically the same thing. The book is set during the reign of imperial England, and Rue is a roundabout agent of the Crown. The attitudes of Rue and her companions toward the people of India, especially the more primitive people groups, is troubling. One could argue that it would be historically inaccurate to make these upper-class characters more socially advanced than their times would have justified, but the trouble goes beyond that. Rue and her allies do try to be forward thinking and protect the interests of these groups, but their efforts and language toward this end are condescending at best. These people groups serve as a convenient plot tool for the book and are never given any real agency or focus. Indian culture is appropriated and patronized. I have no doubt Carriger intended none of this to be offensive, but it was uncomfortable to read, especially given the very real history of the English on Indian soil.
Second, the strength of the novel is almost entirely in its imagined world, in its characters, costumes, technology, and customs, and the plot is left somewhat weak and unable to sustain the weight of style it must carry. The action of the story feels like an afterthought to what is unquestionably a lovely scenario to set it in. When the action does begin in earnest and we move toward and through the story’s climax, one never has the feeling the characters are in any real danger. This creates little suspense, and things tidy up too conveniently. But the plot is never the point here. The point is style, and it has that in reserve.
I did like Prudence, though I certainly had complaints. I’ll most likely hop on board The Spotted Custard once again when the second book in the series, Imprudence, comes out (no release date has yet been given). If you aren’t put off by the preciousness of the book, it’s certainly a fun ride.
Prudence is available now at Greenville Public Library.