My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Let it be known that I don't often give five-star reviews. So for a novella to earn that from me,...well, that's kind of a big deal. But when I finished Gail Carriger's Poison or Protect I was satisfied, for lack of a better word. I couldn't think of something I'd want to change or rewrite or edit; there was nothing dangling in my head as "unfinished."
It is the mark of a good writer that s/he can make us feel affection for villains, or, more accurately, that s/he gives us rounded, fleshed out characters who are complicated and complex, rather than flat characters who can be described as "hero" or "villain" with no grey area in between*. And Carriger has just done just that with Lady Preshea Villentia, the Mourning Star (and extra points for always giving us fantastic character names!).
If you've read Carriger's "Finishing School" series, you will recognize Preshea as one of the "mean girls" of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.
[Please note that you absolutely do not have to read those four books in order to read and enjoy this novella. Some of the winks and nods to the reader may be lost on you, but you won't even notice as they fly by.]Telling (at least half of) this story from Preshea's point of view gives us a chance to understand her and her meanness just a bit more. Carriger doesn't try to change or rescue Preshea; she simply gives us insight to a complicated character. As Poison or Protect takes places a couple of decades after the Finishing School series, there is plenty of time for Carriger to fill in Preshea's backstory.
I also found it rather remarkable that, for a universe built on the existence of the supernatural (as that's where the Parasol Protectorate books start), there are only two -- count' em, TWO -- supernatural characters in this book**. And only briefly at that. (You'll recognize them both.) While some of the other characters refer, briefly and generally, to werewolves and vampires, they are not the focus; and the book does not suffer for it. I don't think that's a feat easily attained.
And while we're on the subject, the "steampunkiness" of Carriger's universe is also not such a focus in this novella. A couple of dirigibles here and there, and that's about it. Very little gadgetry, yet we do not notice that it's missing. It was only after the fact that I came to these two realizations.
So without the supernatural and without the steampunk, what are we left with? Dammit, Gail Garriger, you got me to read a romance novel(la)!! And I may or may not have enjoyed it. I may never forgive you for that.
Speaking of romance, Carriger manages to write some very tasteful (though no less sexy and/or erotic) sex scenes. I think I saw the word "cock" maybe once. I'm no shrinking violet when it comes to sex (or sex scenes), but there was nothing crude or vulgar about these. I appreciated that.
Last but not least: writing in Scottish dialect. I don't think I'll ever tire of some of these characters and their "dinna's" and "ken's." It's just sprinkled in there, even in their thoughts, and never forced in a way that feels like "I'M SCOTTISH. HERE I AM SPEAKING SCOTTISH AND DOING SCOTTISH THINGS."
So go, read, enjoy. Whether or not you do it whilst drinking tea and wearing a corset is up to you.
*See also Marissa Meyers' Fairest (Lunar Chronicles #3.5), or even just the first few chapters of Game of Thrones. When the POV switches, we suddenly find ourselves not sure whose side we're supposed to be on.
**I should say three, I think. There is Formerly Connie.
***Y'know what,...there is something slightly left unfinished: (click to read whole review with spoiler).
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