Prudence (The Custard Protocol, Book One)

prudenceThe Short Version: Now twenty years old, Lady Prudence Maccon Akeldama is in so many ways the child of all three of her parents. When Lord Akeldama sends her off on a mission to recover some missing tea in India, she (along with scions of the Tunstell and Lefoux families) takes a ladybug painted dirigible and sets off. But India is not England and it’s not just tea that’s gone missing…

The Review: Gail Carriger Parasol Protectorate series, which concluded longer ago than I thought with Timeless, was one of the delights of my reading life. Vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural hijinks in a steampunk-infused alternate London, written with the wit and vigor of someone who loves both tea and Oscar Wilde exactly the right amounts… yeah, it’s a delightful series. Carriger’s prequel-adjacent Finishing School series, aimed at younger readers, got off to a decent start but I haven’t rushed to keep reading it – it was Prudence that I’d been waiting for. I love the idea of picking up some twenty years later, seeing an aging cast of familiar characters along with the joy of children now grown, who’ve lived with and been influenced by our wonderful friends of yore. And on this front, Prudence does deliver: the reliable joys are present. I just wish they were more present.

Prudence, who goes most frequently by Rue, is absolutely her mother’s daughter: sassy, curvy, and utterly silly without knowing it. She’s also got her father’s temper and is, of course, a “metanatural” – meaning she can steal the power of a supernatural entity on contact. We’ve got Ivy Tunstell’s twin children as well: Primrose and Percy. They’re two sides of the same coin and actually the more interesting duo of the novel. Finally, rounding out our new cast of main character, is Genevieve Lefoux’s son Quesnel. He fills the Connal role in this book, rakish with a surprisingly big heart – but he is also, in many ways, rather the weakest link: his character never really gets beyond “rake with a heart of gold”, whereas Percy and Primrose show unexpected (dare I call them “modernizing”) traits that make them fully formed supporting character. Rue is, as one might expect, the most well-developed of the four (seeing as she is the main character) but she also veers a little too close to reminding me of young Alexia sometimes. None of this is bad, mind you – but just a little well-trod, at this point.

Readers of the Parasol Protectorate will, I wager, be torn like I was about these similarities. On the one hand, it’s rather nice to fall back into this world in such a relaxed way – and this is, after all, just the first book in a brand new series and so we can expect perhaps stronger development outside of the original track in a later book. On the other hand, several moments feel not repetitive but just expected – the child ending up an imitation of their parent, in some ways.
I appreciated that Carriger almost immediately decides to take the action out of London – something she only did late in the PP books and that helped expand that world beyond good fantasy and into something truly remarkable. Here, she sends us to India in the 1890s, just as the Empire’s influence is waning and the political ramifications of Rue’s behavior are far more interesting than Alexia’s ever were. The world has expanded beyond anybody’s individual ken at this point and we really do get a larger sense of cause-and-effect. It’s not just about people’s behavior at balls and in society here (although that is still used to humorous effect throughout) – it’s about geopolitics. I think Carriger could do great things with this series if she continues down that road.

But I just… I’m not sure why I couldn’t love this one. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it and fans will too – but it doesn’t crackle like that original series. It admittedly takes a little time to get going, what with spending just a smidge too long in London on some of the society stuff, and there’s perhaps a little too much secretive plotting that eventually ends up being explained in a clump of exposition at the climactic finale. For every moment that I loved, like the dirigible’s travel and the stop at the refueling station that harkens back to classic sci-fi as opposed to fantasy, there were moments that I never fully engaged in. I almost felt like Carriger was shaking off a little rust at times. Nothing to be worried about, but worth knowing for anybody hoping that the book would grip them as powerfully as the earlier ones did.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5. A perfectly fine romp, complete with plenty of high-society troublemaking and plenty of heaving-bosom-near-romance – all delivered with the winking wit we’ve come to expect from Carriger. But it’s a little listless at times, like a dirigible caught in a lackluster current. If you were a fan of the Parasol Protectorate, by all means dive into the Custard Protocol – I think good things are coming down the line. Just be forewarned that this one is *just* fine.

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