Review: Soulless by Gail Carriger

Soulless by Gail  Carriger
Soulless by Gail Carriger

Gail Carriger
Orbit, 2009 (Forthcoming September 29, 2009)

Soulless is a supernatural steampunk romance from debut author Gail Carriger.  Soulless owes a lot to Jane Austen and, as far as I can tell (having only read the zombie infused remix), Pride and Prejudice in particular.  The novel follows a one Alexia Tarabotti who, as her name shows, despite being British was “cursed” with an Italian father.  Alexia is a self-professed spinster who also happens to have no soul in the most literal sense.  Known as a preternatural her soulless existence means that her touch cancels out the supernatural abilities of the various “immortals” that populate London.  Consisting mostly of Werewolves and Vampires Alexia’s London is one in which humans and immortals live side by side with full knowledge of one another’s existence.

The novel begins when Alexia is attacked by a vampire who has no knowledge of what she is, all vampires are informed of her existence, and whose attack indicates a distinct lack of manners since vampires take on human companions for feeding, or visit blood selling prostitutes.  From there both mysteries, hijinks and romance ensue as the headstrong and forthright Alexia buts heads and crosses words with the somewhat uncouth and slightly barbaric Lord Maccon; head of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BRU).  Of course, despite the two bickering, there is an undeniable chemistry there and we are shown from the outside precicesly what Lord Maccon thinks of Miss Tarabotti.

Carriger does a wonderful job of setting up an intricate and thorough back story for her supernatural Londonites oftentimes hinting at as much as she actually ends up revealing.  There is a certain amount of practicality to her blending of vampires into London high society as well as her use of the more physical werewolves as the base for supernatural law enforcement.  We even get a glimpse of supernatural operations just outside of London revealing how far Carriger’s vision goes; though I’d love to see whether or not supernatural agents are operating outside of Britain herself.  We also have the mysterious Shadow Cabinet, supernatural advisors to the Queen.  Unfortunately, while the reader glimpses all of these things they are never discussed in detail and as a result Soulless manages to tantalize with these bits without ever truly exploring them.  Perhaps in the upcoming sequel.

I always feel a bit guilty bemoaning a books lack of detail when it comes to world-building then turning around and praising its pacing.  I suspect one has to fall to the wayside in order to support the other but I’m going to do it anyway.  Soulless isn’t a book that flies by with high action but nor is it one that lingers with social tomfoolery.  Soulless strikes a neat balance between mystery, action and social shenanigans and frequently, just as it feels it might be lingering on one aspect a bit too long, manages to change things up with a slight twist or sudden reveal.  Part of the novel’s charm is that Carriger does a wonderful job at capturing the prim and proper tone of the Victorian novel while also maintaining a modern air.

The novel is bolstered by an entertaining and well rounded cast of unique individuals.  There is of course Alexia Tarabotti herself, forward-thinking, headstrong, educated and proactive she is a delightful character to read and, despite being something of a victim of British society thanks to her Italian heritage, manges to come off as a confident and self-assured woman.  Her involvement with Werewolf Pack politics later is a nice attempt to subvert the typical gender dynamic of man pursuing woman and I kind of wish that Carriger had gone all-out with Alexia’s pursuit of Maccon instead of the more middle-of-the-road approach seen here.  Though I suppose trying to remain a proper British lady while at the same time asserting one self as a dominant Alpha female are two difficult aspects to reconcile.  In addition to the somewhat rough and rougish Lord Maccon there is the intelligent and polite Professor Lyall.  In addition to the coutrly vampires we get the vampire rove, unabashedly flamboyant Lord Akeldama who comes off as a bit of caricature to start but in the latter half of the novel really comes into his own.

Soulless is a fun read and an interesting take on the urban fantasy novel or, as Carriger herself puts it, “urbane fantasy.”  It is something decidedly different from everything else on the market today and does a remarkable wonderful job blending a variety of genres into easily digestible package.  Incidentally, Carriger is the only author I’ve come accross so far who has adopted the steampunk image herself; when I saw her at BEA she was all done up in spectacular steampunk dress with, to my fashion dead eyes, a bit of 1950s flair (check out the video on her presskit page).  Indeed she even works a number of links to steampunk resources on her webpage which is more than worth a look.  Soulless is a wild ride sure to please fans of steampunk, romance, mystery and action so keep an eye when it finally hits shelves next week.

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