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Oct 24

Book Review: Waistcoats and Weaponry by Gail Carriger

Waistcoats and Weaponry by Gail Carriger is the third book this year that I didn’t have the patience to finish. Compared to the previous two novels – the Kevin J Anderson and Charles E Gannon – Carriger’s characters and prose are of Nobel Laureate quality.  However, I had no patience for her steampunk 19th Century with its werewolves and vampires and where young women go to a finishing school to learn the art of assassination and intelligence gathering.

Prior to reading this book – or the first quarter at least – I’d never had a particular issue with the fetishisation of the 19th Century. I’ve never been a great fan of steampunk, but this has less to do with condoning or avoiding the colonialism of the British Empire and more because zeppelins, goggles and clockwork robots don’t tickle my fancy. However, Waistcoats and Weaponry changed that.  It’s not that Carriger ignores issues of class and race in this book, it’s just that the attitudes of Sophronia and her friends, even when they (or Sophronia) recognise the racism inherent in their culture, is played with such wide-eyed, aw shucks innocence that it’s annoying and patronising rather than revealing of a time and place.

I know, I know, this steampunk alternate is set in 1853 and all Carriger is doing is reflecting the attitudes of that time. I get that. But this is the third book in this particular series, and for Sophronia only now to recognise that her “ebony” friend Soap, who is a “sooty” (engineer) on the zeppelin that houses the finishing school, is limited in the choices he can make because of his class and colour, led me to conclude that Carriger is only playing lip service to these issues. She’s aware they exist, and her characters will note them when it suits – like how they all call Dimity a snob because she’s so obsessed with reputation and class – but Carriger won’t allow this stuff to get in the way of the all the werewolf and vampire hijinks.

I know I’m being unfair. Having only read a quarter of the third book in the series, it’s a bit rich of me to make these sweeping claims about Carriger’s intent in regard to class and race. It’s possible that all three books provide a subtle critique on the society, something I can’t see because I’ve jumped into book three (blame the Locus Awards). I accept all that. But I still lost patience. I didn’t want to spend anymore time with these privileged and entitled white girls, even if one of them is willing to slum it with the local sooty.

The novel also suffers from info-dumpitis. It’s not as bad as some other novels I’ve read this year, but Carriger has this tendency to re-explain concepts of her world, concepts I’m assuming have already been noted in previous books. I’m starting to wonder whether these clunky info-dumps are less a choice of the writer and more a mandate of the publisher requesting little reminders for forgetful fans of the series. Whatever the case, they get in the way of the flow of the narrative.

I gave up on this book because it wanted to have its cake and eat it. It wanted to embrace and fetishise the 19th Century (or at least a steampunk version of it) while only playing lip service to the problems of the time. I was growing increasingly annoyed as I turned the digital pages and decided to throw the towel in before annoyance became anger.

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