This review contains spoilers for the first two books, but not for this one.
I am pleased to have finished this series! Having the questions of whether Bertie’s parents could or would ever get back together, or even whether she would ever see either of them again; and whether she would end up with Ariel or Nate (or neither? or both?! – as River Song would say, that is a whole other birthday…) in the end were driving me a bit nuts.
And now I know how Mantchev resolved it. And if you haven’t read the books, you don’t. So nyer.
The story opens with Bertie dealing with the aftermath of how she dealt with Sedna, the Sea Goddess, and its repercussions for her father, as well as Nate – whom she has rescued – and Ariel, to whom she is kind of now married… as well as being married to Nate. Um, oops. So, it’s back to the Caravanserai, but not for long because she receives a summons from Her Gracious Majesty to perform before her, and so the journeys of this crazy little troupe continue. They involve bandits, a queen, several tricky journeys, the use of magic, gaining and losing companions, and finally a return to where everything began, the Theatre Illuminata.
The plot is generally well-paced, and there were some clever twists and turns to it. As far as characters go, Bertie did not grow on me further. I really liked her in Eyes Like Stars, the first novel; then she got a little grating in the second, as it didn’t feel like she was quite taking charge enough. By this time, even though it’s only a few weeks after the events in the first story, she has… evened out, maybe? Although she is still being pushed around by the winds of fortune (heh), she feels more balanced, and at the same time more willing to take necessary risks. I don’t think I’m explaining this very well, but the upshot was I think that I like and respect her more in this story, certainly by the end, although I’m still not convinced I’d like to know her in reality.
The rest of the cast don’t change that much, with the exception of Ariel. Nate develops more as an individual because he actually has some page-space, which his kidnapping had largely disallowed for the last book and a half or so, but he doesn’t exhibit any unexpected character traits like sea-sickness or being a mathematical genius. He remains a loyal friend, and a good friend, which is exactly what he should be. Waschbar is probably the most intriguing and underdeveloped of all the characters, with his determination only to steal unwanted items… and just wait til you meet Varvara. But then there’s Ariel, who is developed in this story. We finally get more of an insight into his motivations (aside from lusting after Bertie like nothing else), and that’s unexpectedly poignant (much as I dislike the terminology, I have always been Team Nate).
Finally there’s the fairies, who continue to be awesome and pastry-lusting and crude. Just for bonus marks, there is a marvellous exchange between Moth and Peasablossom on the question of vampire bats: “Don’t be ridiculous… Vampire bats don’t sparkle.” “They do! They’re a great glittery menace!” Ah fairies. So snarky. So true.
The last book by Adam Roberts that I read, Yellow Blue Tibia, I did not enjoy. At all. So I was a little dubious about reading this one until I saw the cover, and I am willing to admit here and now that in this case at least, the cover totally sucked me in. An art deco sensibility is definitely the way to at least make me interested in starting your book.
And then I read the blurb, and decided that this could indeed be a book for me.
One of the great answers to “how would you change the world” in stereotypical beauty pageants is, aside from world peace, an end to world hunger. It’s something that writers of near-future sf occasionally deal with: do we get awesome new genetically modified wheat? Do we farm algae in the seas? Do we ship everyone off-planet? Roberts suggests something entirely different: create a bug that, once ingested, turns human hair into a light-gathering factory. That is, allows it to undertake photosynthesis.
Et voila! Hunger solved! As long as you have access to sunlight. And as long as you have hair long enough to catch enough sun.
Marvellous! But, now that all of those people over there are no longer starving, how do the fancy people over here prove that they are still at the top of the social scale? Easy: they eat real food. Also, they shave their heads.
It’s a bizarre world that Roberts imagines, in some ways: people lying around quite literally soaking up rays, the changed language that reflects changes in society, and so on. But, most frighteningly and tellingly, actually this future world is a lot like our present one. Maybe worse. There are haves and have-nots, at all point on the spectrum; there is discontent, both individually and collectively; there are power struggles, and cultural misunderstandings.
The novel begins as a family drama, when George and Marie’s daughter is kidnapped while they are on a family skiing holiday in Turkey. (George and Marie are skiing; their children stay with their nanny in the designated children’s play area, and get brought out when the nanny is summoned to do so.) Their experience with the local authorities is frustrating to say the least, no ransom is demanded, and the outlook is bleak – until George finds someone willing to undertake an investigation on their behalf. Dot explains why children are sometimes kidnapped: the energy from New Hair is not sufficient for a pregnancy. So either women have to get food somehow as a supplement, or… they get themselves a pre-made one. As it were. While there are indications before this event that this brave new world is not a perfect one for everyone, this is the first big crack, suggesting that the worst of human nature can still exist even when one of the major crises is lifted. This whole experience also reveals some of the cracks in George and Marie’s marriage, and they just keep getting bigger.
Just less than half the novel is taken up with George’s story – losing and eventually finding Leah, everyday life as a rich man in New York, his friendship with various people and a slowly developing interest in not continuing as normal. His perspective is rather abruptly abandoned in favour of a short vignette from Leah’s perspective, which confirms what the reader has already suspected fairly early on (um, mild spoiler?): she is not Leah. Thanks to this insert the reader is given a brief, fascinating glimpse into life in a village somewhere in Turkey (maybe; the geography is unclear), where New Hair is how people survive and power games have shifted accordingly. And this is contrasted with her experiences as the pampered daughter of a rich American family, which is of course rather stark.
The rest of the novel is divided between two more perspectives: that of Marie, George’s wife, a fairly shallow woman floating along on her own indulgences; and that of a girl living with New Hair, in a no-account little village, who ends up leaving her village and commensurately its protection and familiarity. The comparison between these two is striking, and says a great deal about power, expectations, and the impact of an individual’s choices.
Am I glad I read it? Yes indeed. While it’s by no means action-packed, the plot does move along at a steady pace, even though the events could sometimes be regarded as trivial; when the focus is a single family struggling with grief, interactions with doctors and friends and a daughter returned naturally assume significance. And just like ordinary life, these events are taking place against a background of seriously geopolitical events, if the reader cares to pay attention. Of the characters, George starts off like Konstantin in Yellow Blue Tibia – annoying and self-centred and self-pitying – he improves as a human in general, plus his interactions with people also make him more interesting than he initially seemed. I cannot say the same for Marie – she never becomes a person I would want to know – but her perspective provides a crucial, and crucially different from George, view on the world. And finally, exploring how a world so different from ours, without hunger, can still be so much the same, is a sobering reflection on human nature. One that I rather hope need not prove true.
I read this basically as soon as I finished 2312. It was a serious headspin to go from THAT world to this.
The last Parasol Protectorate book, Heartless, bugged me because of its snobbish attitudes towards the middle class. I was very pleased to see that this was not quite such an issue here, mostly because there is little real interaction with the middle classes. So that was one problem cleared up.
This review contains spoilers for the first four books, but NOT this one.
Timeless opens with a delightfully domestic scene: Alexia Tarabotti and Conall Maccon dressing for the theatre (to the latter’s disgust) when they are summoned… to the bathroom. Where chaos is ensuing, because their toddler daughter Prudence really, really doesn’t want a bath. And while bathing a toddler can be a trying time under ordinary circumstances, when said toddler steals vampirism and werewolfism from those individuals with a single touch and she is being bathed by vampires… well. Potential disaster for those involved, hilarity for onlookers.
This is the reader’s introduction to the new life Alexia finds herself with, since the end of Heartless saw the birth of said daughter. For most of that book, Alexia was heavily pregnant but did not generally allow that state to get in the way of adventures and potentially risky undertakings. Having had her daughter frees Alexia somewhat to go back to her old life with even less worry, especially since Prudence has officially been adopted by the outrageously dressed Lord Akeldama (confidant, vampire, fashion guru). Alexia is a devoted and caring mother, and also a working mother. She can manage to balance motherhood and work fairly well because of her privileged position in terms of wealth and what essentially amounts to a very large, devoted, extended family who are willing to do much of the routine stuff. There is little explicitly said about how this affects Alexia (or Prudence), and the only other mother in the book with toddlers also has enough money to afford a nanny, so the realities of life for working mothers is left uninterrogated. This is also, I think, a factor of the book’s setting in Victorian London, where this was the norm for moneyed mothers, even those who did not undertake paid work. So while it was good to see a mother being able to act as a human being, apart from her child but still with the child making a fundamental change to her life, it would have been nice to see a bit more reflection on that situation. (Perhaps that was too much to want in what is intended as a romp.) While this aspect was a little underdone to my tastes, the very fact that there was any discussion of the impact of fatherhood on Lord Maccon was very welcome indeed. Although it had been revealed in an earlier book that he was already a father, we see here how he feels about a toddler – and the answer is very positive. Devoted, in fact, and willing to be directly involved in her life and upbringing. His distress at being unable to hold Prudence whenever he likes, because of her ability to turn him mortal and herself therefore into a werewolf cub, is subtly but clearly painted, and is one of the nicest domestic aspects of the whole book.
Domesticity is therefore a consistently present theme throughout the book, and how to balance it with undertaking potentially life-endangering missions for pack, queen and country. The action, though, is driven by a summons Alexia receives from the vampire queen of Alexandria, requiring her to present herself and Prudence before her. This necessitates some sort of cover to allow them to travel without suspicion to Egypt, and the gaining of that cover is definitely the funniest part of the entire narrative. Capers is Egypt unfold as expected, which is to say unexpectedly, and involve boats, balloons, and donkeys.
More than any other of the Parasol Protectorate novels, this one features a substantial sub-plot, involving Maccon’s great-great-great-granddaugher, Sidheag Maccon, the Lady Kingair. It also ends up involving Biffy, Akeldama’s former acolyte turned reluctant werewolf. His particular journey is one of the most interesting across the novels, I think, because many of the other immortals have either been that way for a very long time or were desperately hoping to become one. Biffy, though, is now cut off from most everything he loved in his former life – starting with Akeldama and descending, oh my, to the fact that he just can’t keep his hair neat any more. While this latter issue may seem incredibly superficial, as does his fastidious attention to fashion, it reflects his attempts to integrate his original life with his new one, so the compromises he makes are actually quite significant. Plus, awesome dress sense.
Also, there are a lot of frocks. And cravats, and hats. Ivy features, and she has a lot of hats. Some of them have feathers.