Defy or Defend: A Delightfully Deadly Novel by Gail Carriger

I was invited by the author to review this novel and received an electronic preprint version for the review. I’ve also purchased a copy of the book.

It’s been a few years since Carriger’s foray into adventures with the young ladies of the Finishing School as adults — Poison and Protect came out nearly four years ago, by my own archives. Carriger’s offer to review came just as the world was closing in around us and her story gave me a few pleasant hours in a tidier and much more frivolous world.

There are spoilers in this review, if you would not like to be spoiled, please come back another day.

Carriger returns us to the Parasolverse in search of Dimity, who has grown up into a particularly sweet and manipulative operative known as a Honey Bee. While an accomplished and capable spy, she is always sent in with a safety – a gentleman to support and assist should it be needed.

This time around, though, on what she hopes will be her last mission, her safety is a man she both desires and cannot seem to wind around her finger: Sir Crispin Bontwee, a gentleman through and through whose sisters have inured him to feminine wiles.

Dimity and Crispin pose as husband and wife to infiltrate a hive that has gone, it seems, Gothic. They’re given two weeks to try and revert trends, get the queen out of her cave, and see if they can put the black velvet back in the closet. Even Lord Akeldama is worried.

The invasion is an incredible rout by Dimity as she sweeps away not only the dust but the dreary moods and the ennui of the hive inhabitants. She’s armed with wallpaper and fabric samples and a willingness to charge in and risk herself; even as Crispin chases behind her to do her bidding and try to keep her safe.

I loved the absurdity of this book. Carriger is gently teasing all of her characters, from a deeply Bryonic vampire lost in his own melodramatic mediocre poetry to a overly dramatic actor drone with pretensions. Dimity calmly manipulates all of these men, pushing the hive towards colors, lighter curtains, and automated polishing machines.

Carriger also very neatly introduces a transgender character, providing a quiet acceptance on all fronts and changing pronouns without any particular fuss. It’s calmly accepted that Justice prefers beautiful dresses and feminine pronouns — without any ostracization or dramatic scenes. It’s a broader world of sexuality than Alexa will know later on when she is a Victorian spinster in a few more books, but not one that surprises Dimity–suggesting a freedom lost by the strictures of what middle-class young ladies might be exposed to. Carriger addresses this while also acknowledging how acceptance might not come so easily behind the hive.

Dimity and Crispin don’t fall into the Enemies to Lovers trope — despite my expectations at the beginning of the book. They were sweetly awkward and very much interested in each other, while also determined to fix things and get through this mission. It was nice to see them both consider and care about the other and worry about how the other perceived them. And Crispin, while there very much in a protector role, isn’t an alpha — he worries about Dimity but also acknowledges to himself that she is competent and capable and this is her mission. He takes his cues from her and relies on her leadership.

My minor quibbles: the book felt too short and I wanted more time with the characters. I wanted more of their squabbling before everything fell into place and they acknowledged both the sexual and romantic tension between them. I wanted at least one more household disaster in the hive — preferably something utterly ridiculous. The speed too at which they must repair the house felt too fast. The idea that a young woman in the house for three days without anyone’s authority could order that much wallpaper or hire all that staff seemed potentially outside even Dimity’s power.

I would have also liked more time with the queen, who I felt could have used a little more time to explore on screen why she had retreated and why a conniving drone could have manipulated her as he did.

Overall, however, it was a delightfully light book I needed to remind me that I really do want to go reread Soulless and the Finishing School books and to wonder just which of my jewelry could be redesigned to be slightly more dangerous.