Title: Soulless (The Parasol Protectorate, Book #1)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 357 pages
Genre: steampunk paranormal romance
New or Re-Read?: New, on a friend’s recommendation
Rating: 4 stars
I enjoyed the hell out of this book. And I wasn’t expecting to. I’d heard enough mixed things that I approached it with some trepidation. But I was very, very pleasantly surprised. That doesn’t mean the book is without its flaws — but, as I’ve noted before, a book doesn’t necessarily have to be technically superior to be enjoyable. And there’s much to like about Soulless.
Alexia Tarabotti has no soul. Apart from leaving her little creativity in her dress (and perhaps making her over-sensitive to flamboyant fashion sense in others), it doesn’t really affect her daily life. It’s just a fact of her being. It also gives her the power to neutralize supernaturals, who lose their powers in her presence, and this fascinating ability has started to attract interest from unexpected quadrants.
I love the approach to the supernatural here, because it’s so refreshingly new. But not in a Twilight-I’m-going-to-ignore-all-folklore-and-history-and-just-make-up-my-own-crap-based-on-whatever-I-think-is-cool kind of way. In a very clever, thoughtful kind of way. Carriger has decided to attribute the phenomenal success of the British Empire to supernatural beings – primarily vampires and werewolves. (I dare to hope she’ll introduce the Fae in some later book, but that might be a wild desire on my part; I’ve just always thought the Fae must’ve had something to do with Britain’s inexplicable dominance). Her explication is that supernaturals have, in their lives, an excess of soul, and that allows them to become something else after death rather than just progressing on into the usual afterlife. (What this implies for Alexia’s eventual fate, I’m not sure). In the typical manner of Victorian Brits, folk in this world are experiencing a scientific desire to pick this concept apart and figure out exactly what it is that gives one person more soul (or less) than another. The crux of conflict comes when not everyone’s willing to explore the matter through appropriate and genteel methods.
I think what I really enjoy is the focus on werewolves. Too many books favour the vampiric side of things, and I personally find vampires so much less interesting (all due apologies to Lord Akeldama, who is, I must admit, a real treat). I’m a hot-blooded pack animal by nature, so my sympathies have always lain with werewolves among supernatural creatures. Lord Maccon, pack Alpha and head of the British agency supervising supernaturals, is a delight — a hot-tempered, snarling, Scottish delight. The werewolves make the book for me, because they introduce, well, chaos and mayhem. The wolves are just a little bit bonkers, and I find that tremendously appealing. It’s a lot more interesting than the emotional reticence of vampires. I do like that we get some variation with the vamps as well, though. Lord Akeldama might stray a bit too far towards the Sassy Gay Friend stereotype, but he’s still pretty damn entertaining, and it’s nice to see a different kind of vampire. His drones are also pretty hilarious.
The main reason this gets four stars instead of five is because, particularly in the first half of the book, the writing style is a little too precious. The author’s too self-consciously imitating/parodying a pseudo-Victorian style, to the point that it sometimes drowns out her storytelling and her wit. Which is a shame, because once that haze gets cleared away, the wit is really quite good. Towards the end of the book, it’s like Carriger forgot to be twee and just wrote, and the book is so much the better for it. I’m hoping that improvement carries on into the next book, but I worry she’ll open with more of the same affectations.
It was also a bit annoying to be constantly reminded of Alexia’s age and appearance. I’m not sure precisely why Carriger feels compelled to drive home that she’s Italian, dark-complected, and has a big nose about once a chapter, but she does. (I also find the cover model choice a bit strange, as she looks nearer forty than Alexia’s twenty-six). I’m also hoping for some more strong female characters in the mix (a nice Alpha female werewolf heading another pack, perhaps?). Right now, there’s something vaguely chauvinistic in how Carriger portrays every other woman in the series as empty-headed, status-obsessed, twittering idiots (with the exception, perhaps, of a vampire queen who, we can presume, will prove a villainess later down the line). I know it’s the Victorian era, but it’s also, y’know, fiction, and fantasy at that. There’s room in that world for more than one intelligent, capable female. Carriger could take some cues from several popular romance authors (I’m thinking of JQ and Kleypas, in particular) on how to build a network of strong, smart women, rather than piling all feminine worth into one figure. Alexia needs a friend who’s on her level. If the only way to make her special is to make all the other women around her vapid and useless… well, you don’t have much of a heroine on your hands. And the thing is, I think Alexia is strong enough as a character already — Carriger just doesn’t seem to be giving her own creation quite enough credit.
In general, Soulless is a mash-up of genres. Judging from some other reviews I’ve read, this has been a detracting point for some readers, who were expecting an adventure, or a romance novel, or a paranormal urban fantasy, and got some of that and also a lot of other things they didn’t expect. It’s made other reviews interesting to read, as some deride the lack of romance and others complain about the overabundance of it. For me, it’s an attraction. I like genre mash-ups and stories which defy easy categorisation. For the first two-thirds of the book, the steampunk element is quite lightly handled. It’s really more a paranormal romance for the duration, with a bit of steamy flavouring; the more distinctly steampunk elements come in towards the end, with the technologies at play. I sort of wish this had been more prominent throughout, but I suspect we’ll be seeing more of it in later books.
Overall, I enjoyed Soulless and I’m looking forward to Changeless, the next book in the series. The premise of The Parasoal Protectorate is intriguing and engaging, and I think many of the problems in Soulless may be those of a first novel. I hope the twee elements will get toned down, and I hope the cast of characters will expand to include some more girls who aren’t complete ninnies. Carriger certainly has room to improve, but she’s set a solid enough foundation that I have faith in her abilities.