Review

Review: Competence by Gail Carriger (2018)

The Custard Protocol, Book 3

Review of The Custard Protocol Book 1, Book 2

Heat Factor: There’s no heat, really

Character Chemistry: It’s a long time coming, but not really super important

Plot: A journey of self discovery on a journey of (supernatural) species discovery

Overall: An interesting read

In the continuing adventures of the Spotted Custard, the crew has made its way to Zanzibar, dropped off all but one of its attackers (Rodrigo being Rue’s cousin, his imprisonment was a family matter), and floated off to Singapore, where the story commences with Primrose Tunstell racing back to the Custard as it sinks down, down, down with a helium leak.

Prim had been on a mail and supplies run, and with the disappearance of the Custard, she is marooned until she can get back to the Custard, preferably with helium. But never fear! She’s not alone because the great werelioness/first mate of the Custard launches herself up off the ship with some overnight supplies. And so we are introduced to the romantic interests.

Prim and Tasherit Sekhmet have been having run-ins with each other since book 1 (Prudence). All the while Rue was denying her own romance in book 2 (Imprudence), she was telling Prim be open to the obvious attraction between herself and Tasherit, but Prim is determined to be conventional (although she keeps running through fiancés). But we’ll get to that. First we need to get the storyline out of the way.

The story is another adventure that hops from point to point like we’re simply following along on these adventures, but we don’t mind at all. This one is engaging because it is told from Tunstell twins Prim and Percy’s perspective, which is much different than Rue’s perspective was for the first two books. In the mail is a letter from Rue’s mother requesting the rescue of some endangered Andean vampires, so off the Custard goes to Peru, where it finds aether pocket pirates, fat-sucking vampires, and a soul (?) for soulless Rodrigo. I’m not sure anything will measure up to either Prudence or Soulless for sheer delightfulness, but it was a fun read.

So back to the romance, such as it is. It’s not steamy, and I’ve definitely read books with more chemistry between the protagonists, but a number of themes were considered that made the romance a study of what makes family and happiness, and how those are or should be valued.

We’ve got a couple of things going on. First, there is the interest between Tasherit and Prim, in which Tasherit is coming from a place hundreds of years old where it’s normal for females to be involved, and Prim is coming from Victorian London where she is strictly conventional. There’s also a little side story going on between Rodrigo and Anitra, whom I did not mention by name in the Imprudence review, so I will introduce them now. Rodrigo, Rue’s cousin, being a soulless Italian, was raised by the Templars, who in this story are an extremist religious sect whose mission is to kill all supernaturals. So he’s basically a supernatural assassin. Anitra is one of Rue’s vampire father’s associates, and she joins the Custard after venturing into Nubia with the crew as part of a nomadic dirigible flotilla. For our purposes in this conversation, Rodrigo is bisexual and Anitra is transgender.

It’s not uncommon for same-sex romances to include one individual with experience and one whose life would be turned upside down with a departure from the heterosexual straight and narrow, and that’s what we have here. But of course since Tasherit is an immortal big cat and everyone is a part of a band of misfits living on a red and black spotted dirigible, this one’s a little outside the normal.

Tasherit’s been in love with Prim since day one, and Prim has been avoiding Tasherit because she doesn’t know what to do with her feelings for the werelioness. Although Tasherit’s currently not part of a pride (and hasn’t been for a long time), when she was a member of the pride found in Imprudence, she was in a homosexual relationship, so she doesn’t fully understand why Prim won’t accept her when they obviously have feelings for each other.

“It’s no good.”

Tasherit’s eyes were flashing and fierce. “Little one, it’s not only one direction. I am yours too.”

“You shouldn’t say such things.” Prim turned to face her door and fumbled with the knob.

Percy felt his own hand press against his throat, his eyes drawn wide and tight.

“But why?” The werelioness was clearly in pain. “Is it because I have no pride to help provide for you? I assure you, I am an excellent hunter.”

Prim looked wholly unhappy. “What? No. Nothing like that. It’s that, well, you are, well, female…as such.”

Tasherit cast her hands up to the heavens. “Of course, and this signifies how?”

Maybe I’m not super into this love story because Tasherit keeps on using the diminutive “little one”, which I find patronizing rather than romantic. Alternatively could be that I don’t think cats are particularly sexy. A question for the ages, I suppose.

Prim, meanwhile, has been trying as hard as possible to be as conventional as her mother is unconventional. She’s planned a marriage of convenience and never considered that love or friendship would be a part of it. It was simply expected. And would hopefully result in a home and children, which was desirable. Primrose Tunstell is a model of maidenly Victorian virtue, but as she continues to have these feelings she doesn’t know what to do with and as she continues to be challenged by all of the other members of the crew, she begins to wonder about her own expectations for her life.

Prim isn’t exactly isolated from unconventional relationships. Rue’s vampire father is gay, and Prim and Rue have grown up as sisters. Quesnel’s mother is a lesbian, too, although she lives with a different vampire hive than Prim’s mother’s hive, so they didn’t have a lot of interaction growing up. And Rue and Quesnel are currently living in sin. Then we come to Rodrigo and Anitra.

Relatively early in the book, while we are experiencing Percy’s point of view, we get to know a little more about the Custard’s prisoner-cum-crew member, Rodrigo Tarabotti:

If Percy were the type of man to prefer the company of other men, Rodrigo Tarabotti would have tempted him.

To be fair, Rodrigo Tarabotti had tried to tempt him on several occasions. He was wily, and one of those wiles was seduction. And an apparent disregard for the gender of the object of said seduction.

So even though Rodrigo has been raised to believe himself doomed to hell for eternity because that’s what happens when religious zealots weaponize children with no souls, he is still sexually open minded. When Anitra develops feelings for Rodrigo, she’s at first unsure of herself, but after she learns that he made a pass at Percy, she becomes more confident. We later learn it’s because she’s transgender. It’s just the Victorian period, so reassignment surgery is pretty out of the question. Rodrigo and Anitra have their own HEA, which is adorable, but before we get to that point, Prim is educated by Anitra in a profound way.

It begins because Prim thinks that Anitra is barren, and Prim, knowing that if she enters a relationship with a female, she’ll never have the children and family life she had grown up wanting, gets curious. Anitra corrects her.

“Your world doesn’t understand who you love, but it really doesn’t understand who I am. Drifters have found a means to accept my kind, but not yours. In my culture your inclination would dictate you be male, and I don’t think you want that…Would you say your soul is male?”

“No.” Primrose frowned at the girl. “So for you it is something more than taste in lovers?” Primrose tried hard to understand. “Your soul is female. Is that how it works?”

“So what do Drifters call people like you?”

“Women.”

So Prim allows herself to become a member of the outcast family that’s grown up on the ship since Prudence. She gets her romance but not her family. But every now and again, we need to reframe to have reality meet expectations, and Prim does get her HEA after all, just maybe not the way she planned it, but way happier than she expected it to be.

So, as I said, the real treat of this book is the opportunity to reconsider what’s important (while also enjoying a little lighthearted escapism).


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