I keep picking up Gail Carriger’s books because I really loved her FINISHING SCHOOL series, so I know it’s possible for me to connect with her work, but Competence (2018) is the third CUSTARD PROTOCOL book I’ve tried (after giving up on THE PARASOL PROTECTORATE from which this series spun off) and I’m realizing that it’s just not working for me. So, take my review with the proverbial grain of salt. If you’re a fan of THE PARASOL PROTECTORATE and THE CUSTARD PROTOCOL, just ignore my opinion and go purchase and read Competence. You’ll almost certainly love it.
In this installment, Primrose and the werecat get stranded on land for a bit while the rest of the crew of The Spotted Custard floats offshore. After they’re rescued, Prudence’s mother sends a request that they go to Peru to investigate some rumors about a lone hive of newfangled vampires (pun intended). Meanwhile Primrose’s twin brother Percy (my favorite character) starts a philosophy book club to try to reform the Italian man they picked up at the end of the previous book, Imprudence.
In my review of Imprudence, I complained that the focus of the story was on Prudence’s sexual awakening and romance which I found improbable, silly, and (worst) dull. At that time I said “there is another romance developing with Primrose that I believe in even less. I don’t want to say too much, so as not to spoil it, but it doesn’t seem to fit Primrose’s character at all. I am doubtful that Carriger will pull that off.”
Sure enough, the focus of Competence is on Primrose’s sexual awakening and her romance is both homosexual and involves another species (the shape-shifting werecat). It feels so forced and unlikely and I just couldn’t buy in. I just can’t believe in characters who, on one hand, constantly talk about the need to conform to their Victorian society’s fashion dictates, yet on the other hand so easily dismiss its strictures on sexual behavior. I do get it — Victorian fashions are fun, but its sexual restrictions are not — but for whatever reason, I just can’t get past this. At the same time, though, I can see why other readers can, and many will appreciate Carriger’s inclusion of characters who are not sexually binary (she also has a couple of transgender characters).
Pretty much everything (the plot, the humor, the characterization, the bucking of society’s sexual mores) about THE CUSTARD PROTOCOL has always required a huge suspension of disbelief so, if you’re willing and it’s been working for you so far, I encourage you to pick up Competence. Like its predecessors, it’s got plenty of the silly situations, frivolous fashion, and good-natured banter you’re expecting. There’s not much plot, though — the romance is definitely the focus.
There seems to be a pattern forming in the CUSTARD PROTOCOL books so I’m fully expecting that the next book, Reticence, will involve a sexual awakening for Percy. I’m ready to give up on this series, but I do love Percy, so I will probably check out Reticence when it’s released next year.
The audio versions of Gail Carriger’s books are produced by Hachette Audio and read by Moira Quirk. Quirk is brilliant! I love her performance of these stories.