Various people have been mentioning this one to me for the better part of a year now, and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it.
Rating: 4 stars
Length: Hearty but streamlined (373 pages)
Publication: October 1, 2009 from Orbit Books
Premise: Alexia Tarabotti is a spinster with no soul-- neither fact distresses her, but it can make things dreadfully inconvenient, especially when she's attacked by a rogue vampire. Lord Maccon, the local werewolf Alpha and assigned investigator, doesn't want her to involve herself in more danger...which naturally means that she's determined to learn as much as possible. She has to steer herself through a storm of threats, including everything from a mysterious wax man to her best friends truly awful bonnets.
Warnings: offscreen torture
Recommendation: Soulless excels at smashing genres together into a satisfying whole; it blends steampunk-fantasy, mystery, comedy (of manners), and romance. If romance isn't your cup of tea at all, might be best to steer clear, but it's a satisfying secondary plot that doesn't take a bit away from the puzzles in the main arc.
Why this one is a delightful cream puff of a book:
It's hard to pull off a comedy of manners that holds much interest if you aren't Jane Austen, but Gail Carriger manages to pull it off with style. Alexia's Tarabotti's soulless state can be distressing, true, but it's no more inconvenient than her half-Italian complexion or her spinster status: her mother despairs of her mainly because she's less cooperative than her half-sisters. That dynamic of the supernatural existing as part of everyday troubles sets the tone for this whole world's crooked social dance. The narrative style moves lightly throughout, relying on deft turns of phrase to establish both the Victorian era and the supernatural alterations that have crept into this time. The first page features Alexia thinking disapprovingly about what "any decent vampire of good blooding should know," establishing the vampires (and soon the werewolves) as part of the social order, linked to the same prejudices about rank and wealth and clothing that everyone else is. These creatures are perceived somewhat differently, of course, in part because they are immortal and in part because they are dangerous, but they're fully integrated into this society instead of lurking at the fringes the way supernatural creatures do in so many books.
The backstory and politics leave plenty of room to grow while still remaining streamlined: the vampires and werewolves carry tension within their own groups as well as with each other, and mortal tensions add to that, allowing for many permutations with the players still clearly labeled. The supernatural factions have offered help and support to the humans: for example, werewolves have offered military advice to bring the British Empire to cover half the world, and one of them serves as a permanent adviser to the queen. All supernatural people are regulated by the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, which keeps track of them and makes sure that they're all accountable at least to local leaders. The presence of vampires and werewolves to study has also steered science in a slightly different direction-- it's believed that some people can survive a supernatural transition because they have an excess of soul, so the study of how to measure and understand the soul has overtaken many other branches of science that flourished in our own timeline. Some people appreciate these changes, but others do not and are instead inclined to study how to destroy the supernatural taint in society. Many of these tensions manifest in small moments, like vampires and werewolves greeting each other icily in company or being cautious around each other's territory, but it allows the reader to understand and predict those patterns later on in a way that flows naturally.
Accepting the politics and science is easy when they're wrapped in such wonderful dialogue: many of the characters seem incapable of going two pages without saying something witty or acting slightly ridiculous. The minor characters bring this home in spades, particularly Lord Akeldama, who is flamboyant enough to make a Mardi Gras parade look positively tasteful. He is an ancient rove vampire, one not associated with any of the local hive-queens-- he has many loyal male drones, dresses in eye-smarting shades of pink and magenta, and wears three-inch heels with jeweled buckles. His personality more than outshines the clothes, however, since he's both a shameless gossip and one of the shrewdest observers in all of London. Alexia's powers intrigue him, but he also enjoys spending time with her as a conversational partner, since they both occupy such odd positions in society. Ivy is fun in a different way: she's Alexia's closest friend and social companion and is flamboyant in smaller doses, with the ridiculous colors mostly being confined to her bonnets. She pretends to want to be sheltered from scandal, but she's always eager to hear news of Alexia's latest investigative and romantic adventures. It's easy for best friends outside the main action to fall by the wayside, but Ivy feels absolutely like a real person the whole way through. Even some of the characters at the fringes work well: Alexia's half-sisters could easily go the wicked direction, but they manage to enjoy fine clothes and frivolous concerns while still being happy for Alexia instead of judgmental verging on malicious the way her mother is.
These exchanges of wit are particularly good when Lord Maccon, the local head werewolf and lead investigator for the Queen, is engaging in verbal fencing with Alexia. They annoy each other but marginally secretly find each other attractive, so you can guess exactly where this is going, but it's not a bad trope and Carriger executes it with grace. Maccon and Alexia squabble quite a bit and don't seem to know what to do with each other, and that means quite a bit of romantic banter. She finds him overbearing and fussy and barely civilized, he finds her exasperating and overly talkative, and so they go back and forth between shouting, wanting to protect each other, and (eventually) furiously passionate kisses. It works oddly well for them, ending up being much more interesting than many couples in this genre-- they're equals, in a way, because her preternatural powers neutralize his werewolf powers. Whenever they're touching, they're both perfectly human, and that's an old enough memory for him that he's somewhat off-balance. It's all the more entertaining when they try to seduce each other in appropriate settings, like her family's parlor or in the middle of a perilous situation when they're locked in a cell-- every once in a while it veers into the realm of the ridiculous, but mostly these encounters do a good job highlighting their entirely mutual urgency and desire.
On the whole, the largest strength of Soulless is that it uses space well: very little is repeated, there's nothing in the way of filler, and even slow scenes tend to be enlivened by some glimpse of science or werewolf pack structure or tiny glowing moments of interaction between characters who don't get much space otherwise. This world is smart, the characters have room to grow and change, and Carriger has resisted the temptation to spend too long trying to explain every detail, instead relying on readers to fill in details and leaving plenty of material for the sequels.
The red pen:
There's not too much to complain about here, but the few issues do detract from the grace of the rest precisely because it really shows when such a light tone starts dragging. As in Something From the Nightside, it's tricky to get away with little writing tics when there's not padding to hide it.
Fun though it is to root for Alexia to escape from the confines of her normal life and the rules of society, it's a little harder to care when she's harping on her own supposed shortcomings. Yes, it's problematic to be a spinster in her society, but she can verge into angst when going on about how her hips and bosom are too generous. It's not quite as bad as some protagonists bemoaning how they're "too skinny" or with "carroty hair" as transparent code for "slender redhead with nonsensical self-esteem issues" (City of Bones, I'm looking at you), but it can still grate a little. This is all the more frustrating because of the great emotional flashes that we do see. Alexia has spent years being a chaperone for her younger half-sisters and hearing her own mother tell her that her looks are tolerable at best and she has no real prospects for marriage; despite her confidence and resolve, she's still close to tears for a moment when Maccon says that she's been told for too long that she is unworthy. The scene shines, but all too quickly it subsides back into the normal background of stubbornness and feeling honest in seeing herself as unattractive. It's always hard to work emotional vulnerability into comedy without killing the mood, but just a little more of this could have been stellar.
On a more plot-centered note, the only villain for much of the book is a wax-skinned automaton, and it somehow lacks the menace necessary to carry its weight. Some of the vampires are also intended to be intimidating, probably as long-term villains for the sequels, but they just....aren't. The hive queen Alexia does a good job of conveying icy danger beneath her jolly face, but the others in the room feel more like pretentious philosophers in evening wear than real sources of peril. Later in the book there are other villains, people who honestly believe they are doing the right thing but are willing to sink to truly impressive depths of barbarism to reach that end, but they get all too little pagetime given the emotional punch they pack. Mysterious groups are fine, and hidden attackers can build up a wonderful sense of paranoia, but there's not really enough lingering fear to add a counterweight to the light comedy until quite far into the book. And then one of those villains goes and makes a stupid decision that could harm his cause and looks entirely contrived to end up with Alexia in a certain room, which means a bit less fear of these people and little more questioning their common sense.
All in all, Soulless is quite fun, enough so that I'm planning to hunt down the sequels when I have time. It's hard to tell if the light comedy of manners tone will survive and adapt into later volumes or grow stale in repeating itself, which is a sadly frequent problem in series of this sort. Carriger could have spread the villainy and fear out over more of the book instead of leaving it as purely detective work for quite so long, and Alexia's pining over her prospects can wear a little thin, but for the most part this is exactly the sort of book to lift you out of a sulky mood on a cold day.
Prospects: Carriger's Parasol Protectorate quintet concluded last March with Timeless, but there are two new series in the same world slated to start coming out this year. Her YA Finishing School series begins this month with Etiquette and Espionage, and the adult Parasol Protectorate Abroad series begins this fall.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~All Men of Genius addresses some similar dynamics, with Violet Adams fighting to have her intelligence and competence respected in a world where women are valued mainly for beauty. Violet is younger than Alexia and doesn't share the melancholy that makes Alexia stand out, but the bizarre science and steampunk comedy style make the book comfortable cousins.
~Sorcery and Cecilia (or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot) by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. Yes, it's sillier and written for a younger audience, but the tone and style are quite similar to Soulless; it's written in epistolary style and doesn't veer quite so steampunk, but they're easily first cousins at heart.
~Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters. This one has no magic at all, but Amelia Peabody is a strong-minded spinster with a mind to learn about science and see the world, as well as a penchant for whacking people with her umbrella-- in other words, she and Alexia are so similar that they'd either be best friends or kill each other. It's a deeply charming mystery-comedy, and definitely the sort of thing that persuades me to poke my nose out of this genre.