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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Soulless by Gail Carriger

Title: Soulless (The Parasol Protectorate): An Alexia Tarabotti Novel, Book One
Author: Gail Carriger
Reviewed Format: mass market
Release Date: October 1, 2009
Pages: 384

Alexia Tarabotti has a few things going wrong in her life: she’s a 26-year old spinster in Victorian England, is half Italian (with the skin, hair, and temperament to match), and she has no soul. Resigned to the first two, Alexia is resourceful: she helps BUR (Bureau of Unnatural Registry--a division of Her Majesty’s Civil Service) with supernatural phenomenon and they help her keep her preternatural (soulless) state a secret. Being a preternatural isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Carriger’s 19th century world is re-imagined with werewolves and vampires peppering society in the same way one might consider religion or politics: an emotional, opinionated topic of discussion and in some cases, an intrusion on morality. Alexia’s state is quite rare--preternaturals have the ability to revert vampires or werewolves to their human forms, temporarily rendering them “normal” and revoking their supernatural gifts with just a touch of the hand. And so, she’s valuable--very valuable.

She’s so valuable, she’s had not one, but two assassination and kidnapping attempts. It’s not easy hiding her soulless-ness from a nosy family with two very silly, highly ambitious sisters, but now Alexia’s in trouble. She turns to a cadre of friends and familiars (a Scottish Werewolf and a rather dandyish Vampire) to help discover who’s after her, what they want, and why suddenly lone vampires and werewolves are going missing.

Soulless seemed, at first, an awkward juggle for balance, an effort to negotiate several elements: wit, world building, romance, and suspense. Despite my initial stumbling, I warmed to the writing style after the first couple of chapters and found the entire book to be incredibly delightful! It was reminiscent of Mark Gatiss’ Lucifer Box novels, albeit with considerably more romance, sex, and a little steampunk on the side. The alterations in history were amusing and fit well with the atmosphere Carriger infused throughout the text. For example, the Puritans didn’t flee England because of religious persecution. In a hilarious stroke of wit, they left due to a Elizabth I’s proclamation in the 16th century that finally sanctioned the open existence of supernaturals in Britain--supernaturals which Puritans disagree to on a deeply religious level. Carriger also weaves her supernaturals deeper into American history, noting that “everyone knew the Americans burned to death any accused of being supernatural” (p. 146)--so you see, the oft mentioned witch burnings weren’t just for witches. She also adds another elements to Vampire mythology. The vampire’s “inability to enter private residences uninvited was a myth based upon their collective obsession with proper social etiquette” (p. 46-7).

The Victorian England Carriger creates is a celebration of decorum, etiquette, tea, and propriety. Even the narrative retains certain rules of conduct, seeped from the imaginative fantasy of Carriger’s world--Alexia is rarely referred to by her first name and often related to us as “Miss Tarabotti.” Her companions, and the secondary characters, were wonderful and I wouldn’t mind more of them in the next book. In particular, Foote (her butler), Professor Lyall (second, or Beta, to Alpha Wolf Lord Maccon), and Lord Akeldama--especially Akeldama. He was such a sweetheart, all politeness, warmth, and tastefully dressed. I wouldn’t mind having him (or his endless supply of silk handkerchiefs) at my side.

While her friends were endearing, and Lord Maccon was an interesting take on lycanthropy, I think his burgeoning romance (and sex life) with Alexia overshadowed the plot too often for my taste. It should be noted, however, that in this way, the romance came off as just as important and integral to the story as the suspense and mystery. Even though I thought it rose in priority at the expense of missing vampires, werewolves, and Alexia’s mysterious kidnappers, it doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth reading. In fact, I already want to read the second book, Changeless right now! It’s only that the romance took tangents in a book I did not expect to be more romance than supernatural. Although, the romance was heavily influenced and contingent on supernatural elements which makes it all the more alluring to readers of a certain venue. I, for one, just could have done with less.

The steampunk aspect of the book is also a quiet hum in the background. Dirigibles are mentioned and seen occasionally, a few odd tools (metal sheets for paper, fantastical glasses/goggle contraptions) and steam-powered devices are featured. This is not a book to read solely for the steampunk. Rather, the steampunk is woven around an already entertaining plot and not the thing which the novel is hinged upon. I can’t say this disappoints me--I didn’t pick up the book looking for steampunk. It was icing on the cake, if you will. Just don’t expect anything on the level of books like Boneshaker or Perdido Street Station. Alexia travels quite mundanely by phaeton or carriage when she isn’t walking, but that’s part of the charm of the novel. It’s lovely to see the things Carriage adds a steampunk touch to, and those which are left curiously to the mercy of 19th Century conventions.

Overall the book was lovely, even though there were some flaws. Nothing detracted so much that I didn’t enjoy the book. It’s light and fun to read--perfect for an afternoon read or detour from homework (not that I’m in anyway advocating abandoning homework for it, but, you know, if you feel like a breather… ;) ) and the stress of work. Changeless, the second Alexia Tarabotti novel, comes out next year! And the plus? They’re all being released in mass market. The only downside is, “No one ever explained the octopuses.” (p. 342)


Lily Child said...

This sounds like a delightfully original book! I may have to flip through it the next time I visit the bookstore. I'll remember your warning about the writing style and try to get through the first few chapters before I make a decision to buy! :)

Anonymous said...

This is one I enjoyed, but definitely was irritated with, too. I'm going to give the next one a try since the (irritating) romance will be established rather than the focus.

Also, like the new layout!

Erika said...

@Lily Child It was a lot of fun to read and I think worth it, despite my complaints. :)

@TJ Thank you! It was about time I spruced it up a little. Well, probably past that time, but still.

Anonymous said...

Coming back to this a few months later, I still feel the same, if not more so about the romance. I just didn't like it. The entire love story seemed awkward, forced, and...blah. Unfortunately, those scenes are the ones I remember best, because they seemed to take most of the book. I'm still thinking I'll try Changeless, but my hopes aren't as high as they were for Soulless.

Erika said...

@TJ: The romance bothered me, too, but I agree with what you mentioned elsewhere.. with their relationship established already, Changeless can trod on without having to work toward something we've already been given. I don't think there'll be less romance, since Lord Maccon and Alexia will no doubt still flirt shamelessly, but hopefully the awkwardness that bothered you will no longer be present. After all, at this point, they're together, it's accepted, the narrative must go on. :)

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