As the third book in the Custard Protocol series, Competence by Gail Carriger delivers exactly what you expect from any novel by Gail Carriger. Silly but sweet characters, fun dialogue, crazy mystery, and fun antics are all there in spades. Plus, as the most pragmatic character of the group, seeing her fellow Custard shipmates through Prim’s eyes is a real treat.
There is one major aspect of Prim’s story, however, that almost had me marking the book as a DNF and calling it a day. This is Prim’s love story with Tasherit. As you can imagine with a Gail Carriger novel, Prim’s love interest is not human but rather a were-lion. As a were-lion, Tasherit exhibits many features of a predator and of a feline when in human form. I understand that and find it rather fun, except when she directed such behavior towards Prim. Tasherit loves Prim and spends most of the novel trying to convince Prim that she reciprocated Tash’s feelings. What this means is that Tash’s behavior borders on unwanted sexual advances and most definitely includes sexual harassment.
While Prim does love Tash, she spends the novel trying to reconcile her feelings for the woman against everything society taught her about same-sex relationships being improper. So, while she longs for Tash’s affection and wants to accept it, the fact is that it makes her very uncomfortable. To me, it doesn’t matter that there is a part of Prim that wants to reciprocate Tash’s advances, she doesn’t like the way they make her feel, and that makes them wrong. I suppose you could say that Ms. Carriger is simply highlighting Tash’s predatory nature, but every interaction between Prim and Tash made me very uncomfortable to the point of feeling disgust. If Tash had been male, we would not condone such blatant advances, so what makes them acceptable when coming from a woman?
Weirdly, while Tash and Prim’s interactions were just wrong, unwanted, and harassing, Ms. Carriger takes a completely different approach for her transgender character. First, this character’s reveal was one surprise I did not see coming. Also, the reveal is anticlimactic and fluid, which is perfect. Ms. Carriger neither makes a fuss over it nor hides the character’s nature. It simply is what it is, and no one makes a fuss. If anything, the message about being transgender is as beautiful as it is simple. The character mentions anatomy and gender, and after a moment of confusion by the other characters, no one mentions it again. When this character later gets married, gender and identity play no part – only love. I could not think of a better way to show readers how easy it is to accept a transgender person.
As for the rest of the story, it follows exactly as Ms. Carriger fans would expect. Shenanigans, misunderstandings, enlightenment, and love all ensue. While I normally love Ms. Carriger’s novels for exactly that reason, Prim’s situation destroyed my ability to enjoy Competence. The disgust I felt at Tash’s stalking of Prim, at her unwanted touches, and at her near-constant innuendoes, all of which that made Prim so uncomfortable, were too much for me, no matter if she was acting in her nature, like a cat stalking her prey. The blatant sexual harassment Prim experiences from Tasherit outdoes any of the story’s charm and even the positive message about transgender.