Monday, October 18, 2010

“Soulless”, by Gail Carriger (Orbit)

Reviewed by Alyssa Mackenzie

Print Introducing The Parasol Protectorate

Alexia Tarabotti is labouring under a great many social tribulations.

First, she has no soul. Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.

Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire – and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.

With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia is responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London’s high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?

The first in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, Soulless is at once paranormal romance, mystery novel, and alternate history, written as a comedy of manners. In the world Carriger has created, supernatural beings have been integrated into British society since the Renaissance. By the reign of Queen Victoria, when Carriger’s novels take place, vampires, ghosts, and werewolves have attained a wary acceptance in human society. They sit in parliament, attend their own gentlemen’s clubs, even teach at Oxford.

Carriger introduces us to this world through the frivolous atmosphere of London high society – where the greatest insult for supernaturals and humans alike is to be called a boor, and wearing a sub-par shirt or a badly-tied cravat is a social crime – and the eyes of Alexia Tarabotti, soulless, perpetually in want of a snack, and armed with a parasol tipped with silver and weighted with buckshot. Throughout the novel, the narration is sharp and witty (a blurb on the cover suggests Austen and Wodehouse as influences; I would add Wilde to the list). I found myself giggling aloud frequently, often even at throwaway lines and minor details. Alexia’s family is amusingly flighty, from her attention-hungry half-sisters, to her mother, “prone to wearing yellow and engaging in bouts of hysteria.” Carriger’s lively tone and the novelty of her world keep the pace of the novel fast-moving (although I was a little surprised at how quickly Soulless reached its crisis – the climactic events of the novel begin around the halfway point).

Carriger’s version of supernatural beings is new and interesting. In Soulless, ‘soul’ is believed to be a quantifiable property. Vampires, ghosts, and werewolves have more soul than the average human, which enables them to survive the change from mortal to immortal. Alexia’s lack of soul creates a kind of vacuum – when she comes into physical contact with supernatural creatures, they become human. Carriger uses Alexia’s power to great effect throughout the novel, creating scenes at times comical and incredibly poignant. The question of how exactly ‘soul’ functions, and how supernatural qualities are transmitted, underlies much of the conflict of the novel, and will clearly continue to play a role throughout the series.

Alexia is a very appealing character. She joins determination, intelligence, and a quick wit with natural and entirely understandable frustrations and insecurities. Carriger does a commendable job of allowing her heroine depth without disrupting the dryly humorous tone of her novel. Alexia begins the novel feeling isolated and adrift: she is a self-proclaimed spinster in a world where marriage is her only escape from her family home. Much of the plot of the novel focuses on Alexia’s changing romantic situation. However, equally important is Alexia’s desire for an occupation, to use her intelligence and preternatural abilities to become something beyond the scope of her conventional world. Alexia’s friendship with Ivy Hisselpenny is particularly well-drawn – glibly described as a relationship of convenience, what emerges from their interactions is one of mutual trust and acceptance.

I must admit to finding the romance between Alexia and Lord Maccon a little unsatisfying at times. As is the case with many an Austen pairing, their verbal sparring only obscures their mutual attraction, with the constant battle of wits merely indicating intellectual equality. With Alexia and Lord Maccon, I think I would have preferred to have their initial antagonism drawn out a bit more – to have inferred their chemistry (sexual and otherwise) before it became more explicit. In some ways it felt like I was coming in near the end of their courtship, and I enjoyed their interactions so much that I would have liked to have seen it from earlier on.

Soulless combines a fascinating take on the supernatural with engaging characters; it is also very funny. With her first novel, Carriger has done that elusive thing: she has, in the currently over-saturated publishing world, created a truly fresh version of vampires and werewolves.

Recommended.

Parasol Protectorate series: Soulless, Changeless, Blameless (all out now), Heartless (July 2011), Timeless (2012)

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