Story Rating: 3.75 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 stars

Narrator: Emma Newman
Length: 5 hours, 37 minutes

Audiobook Buy Links: Amazon/Audible | iBooks
Book Buy Links: Amazon | iBooks

Summer, 1878

“Although, did two ladies together call it rodgering? Or was there a proper, more feminine word? Gertruding, perhaps?”

Imogene Hale is bent and knows it. Attracted only to women for as long as she can remember, the 28-year old would have loved to age out of the marriage market and be placed on the shelf, but her remarkable beauty keeps her pursued (and made miserable) by men. Needing to provide for her family and desperate to either figure out what’s wrong with her, find some guidance, or better still, be corrupted, Imogene applies for a position in the local vampire hive (household)—“a place of perversion for [a] perverted girl”—and is quickly hired as an upstairs parlourmaid.

While her beauty catches the eye of the vampire Queen (and everyone else), Imogene remains woefully uncorrupted and worries even more about her defects, since even the perverted vamps don’t appear to want anything to do with her. When asked to deliver a tea tray to the inventor indentured to the Queen, Imogene is shocked to find the tall, slim person vibrating with energy and pique at being disturbed is a woman. Quickly taken with Genevieve (Vieve) Lefoux’s dimples, green eyes, smile, mind, smudges (basically her everything), Imogene is ecstatic when her “odd talent for sums” allows her to work alongside the brilliant, passionate woman. Unfortunately, her elevation in station comes with much attention and animosity; Imogene goes from being mostly invisible to alarmingly conspicuous—marked for different abuses by her equals and her betters.

Worst of all, her obsession interest in Genevieve seems one-sided; on the occasions Vieve appears attracted to Imogene too, Imogene’s tentative hope is quickly smothered because the inventor has decided Imogene is straight; that even if Imogene is bent, she’s too young and innocent for a dusty old Tom like her; that anything between them could only be a product of gratitude/hero worship and would be an abuse of power; and that Imogene can’t possibly know who she is or what she wants. Thus, Genevieve knights herself Protector of Imogene’s Innocence, and wraps herself in an increasingly absurd Cloak of Obliviousness.

Between Imogene’s lack of knowledge and her position far beneath Genevieve’s on the social ladder, she doesn’t (verbally) dispute Vieve’s words, behaviors, or mixed signals—leaving Imogene frustrated, disheartened, and wanting. When the strain between the two culminates in shared secrets and exposes the heartbreak at the core of Vieve’s resistance, the closeness pushes them apart instead of bringing them together, and Imogene finally learns that even if she is willing to settle for the smallest drops of affection from her inventor, said inventor is the only one who can decide if it’s worth taking a chance on Imogene.

Challenge Month 2021Although it’s a baby in TBR time (only 3 years old!), I recently purchased this audiobook, so making Romancing the Inventor my pick for Reading Challenge Month’s TBR Pile Week felt like a no-brainer. It’s an upstairs/ downstairs romance with all the internalized classism and obsession with station inherent in the subgenre—“an upstairs maid with one of the quality”. Très scandaleux!—with the added twist that beings at the top of the food chain also find humans delicious.

Genevieve has appeared throughout Gail Carriger’s Parasolverse, with her introduction (technically) being in Soulless from Carriger’s first series, The Parasol Protectorate; chronologically, Vieve’s introduced in the first Finishing School book at about 10 years of age. Romancing the Inventor introduces a geriatric, practically mummified 37-year-old Genevieve with almost 30 years’ worth of adventuring and shenanigans under her belt, indentured to the Queen, and “famous, possibly a little evil and definitely resentful of being forced into exile in the countryside.” She’s a passionate scientist (which I’m always here for), temperamental, and fearless. She’s disgusted by British classism and is kind to Imogene and appreciates her intelligence.

Imogene, who’s dangerously naïve in some ways, is determined, loves learning, and is silently stubborn. Fear that her queerness will be discovered is hidden beneath her amiable nature and up-tilted chin when confronted, something the villagers and suitors interpret as arrogance. While she does her best to avoid conflict and is deferential, she stands up for herself as best she can. I like Genevieve and Imogene (in spite of Imogene’s protracted, oddly entitled, and sometimes whiny pining and Genevieve’s condensing, Father knows best attitude). As Romancing is told in first person from Imogene’s POV, it’s easier to grasp her character and motivations, but there’s enough textually to get a decent sense of Genevieve’s as well. Overall, the book is well written, checks boxes for British period pieces, such as the subtle, dry wit; the stiff upper lip (in Imogene’s case, the up-tilted chin); and the obnoxious and hypocritical classism where the “betters” of society are entitled monsters (literally in this case) who exploit and abuse the working poor while simultaneously convincing them they should be grateful to be “protected” by beings who “[are] the world’s premier civilizing force.”. Yet for all that, I couldn’t quite connect with the story; a 5.5+ hour audiobook should not have taken me over a week to complete, but it did.

There is a distance/disconnect from the story I couldn’t overcome. Usually even with the starchiest, most tightly clenched characters and/or settings, there is something intriguing that immerses me in the tale and time period. Although Romancing has elements I love, there is no life or spark for me. Romancing is definitely a standalone, but feels like a story specifically for fans of Carriger’s Parasolverse. Again, Carriger does a great job making this an accessible story, especially for a universe with so many interconnected books, but as a totally nitpicky nerd, there are just enough unique terminology and societal conventions to make me feel like I’m missing intrinsic pieces of backstory, even though I understand the gist of what’s presented. Thank the heavens for fandom, because the impression I got of  interesting and involved world building in the Parasolverse turned out to be very true, and I fell pretty far down the wiki rabbit hole. In doing so, I better understood the structure and dynamics of this world and Vieve’s character and believe I would have enjoyed Romancing more if I knew certain things before listening.

Additionally, Romancing is surprisingly boring for all the danger and abusive arseholes populating this story. I mean there’s physical abuse, attempted rape, hell, even espionage mixed in with Vieve and Imogene’s journey towards their HEA, so something should translate into the pressure of high stakes, dread, even terror, but doesn’t. For example, Carriger’s vampires (at least the hive in this book) seem to be a proxy for/indictment of the inhumanity many people with power display and actualize because poorer folks are forced to accept harmful jobs to survive; the vamps’ behavior and mentality are quite gross and despicable. I should have felt repulsion and menace during their scenes, but didn’t. I felt sympathy for Imogene’s situation, but wasn’t invested. Instead of the ugliness of the vampires and their dramatic subplots adding depth and movement to the narrative, they come across as unnecessary filler or attention grabbers to break up the repetitive track Imogene and Vieve stay on for quite a while.

Despite my personal inability to fall into the world and characters, Romancing is a quaint, slow burn, period drama with exceptional world building, and Emma Newman’s narration is a great fit. My only quibble is that the pace is a bit too slow, especially in the first few chapters, and while her voice is lovely, the sedate pace, understated delivery, and measured cadence occasionally become too lulling. However, Newman’s narration in crisp and sharply enunciated; her delivery of Imogene’s internal dialogue and low key shade is delightful; and the character voices are distinct, well done, and fit the personalities. I also greatly appreciate how effortlessly Newman handles the French in the text. Best of all, intentionally or not, she makes Imogene’s motto of “but I’m a parlourmaid!” wonderfully reminiscent of Natasha Lyonne’s “but I’m a cheerleader!”

If you’re in the mood for an audiobook that has a narrator with a charming voice, a virgin desperate to be debauched by a passionate inventor who works in a sheep pickling shed and is convinced she has no love to give, and don’t mind vampires who must be entomophiles since they consider humans insects, but still fuck them, then I recommend giving Romancing the Inventor a listen.

This review is part of our 2021 Reading Challenge Month for TBR Pile Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of two fabulous audiobook bundles from Tantor Audio (you can see the details on the bundles in our Prize Preview post)! Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing Grand {rize sponsored by NineStar Press: a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with 50 NineStar Press books! And don’t forget if you read along with your own challenge book this week, you can earn ten contest entries for writing a mini-review on our wrap up post on Friday! You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on TBR Pile Week here

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