Soulless

by Gail Carriger

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Series: Parasol Protectorate #1
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: October 2009
ISBN: 0-316-07165-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 357

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Alexia Tarabotti is a spinster in London society in the time of Queen Victoria. She is possessed of a hopelessly overwrought and society-focused mother, two half-sisters whose only thoughts are for fashion and gossip, a mixed Italian heritage, an unpopular body shape and complexion, and a secret. In a world in which vampire hives, werewolf packs, and the occasional ghost are out of hiding and openly participating in society, and where the Bureau of Unnatural Registry (headed by a particularly intimidating werewolf who is also an earl) keeps track of the undead, Alexia is something still rarer, and not entirely acceptable. She is preternatural, able to draw the supernatural out of the undead with a touch. She has no soul.

In Carriger's Victorian urban fantasy, laced with a gentle helping of steampunk, vampires, werewolves, and ghosts all have similar conditions. All three are undead; even the change for werewolves happens after normal death. But the change doesn't happen to everyone killed by the corresponding type of undead. The requirements are quite exacting and include the quantity of soul in the person being changed. Only those with a surfeit of soul, too much to stay dead, can be successfully changed. Vampires and werewolves both are surrounded by hopeful humans, called drones and clavigers respectively, who hope to be transformed and gain immortality. But no one can tell in advance how much soul someone has.

Alexia is the precise opposite of the undead. Rather than a surfeit of soul, she has none at all, a condition inherited from her father but unknown to the rest of her family. Her kind, the preternatural, make up the vampire and werewolf hunters of legend, called soul-suckers, curse-breakers, and exorcists by the supernatural set. She's viewed with great suspicion by most, but with fascination by some for her ability to revert them to humanity with physical contact. Not that this has been helpful in finding a husband, or, really, for much of anything else in her life.

Soulless opens with Alexia being accousted by a rogue vampire in the library, where she went for refuge from a private ball. Not only does he not know who she is, despite every hive in the area telling all of their new vampires about her, but he doesn't seem to even know what a preternatural is, and she has to kill him with her parasol. That is the first unusual occurance in an escalating mystery involving new vampires appearing from nowhere, loner vampires and werewolves disappearing, and a truly prodigious use of chloroform. Not to mention quite a few encounters with Lord Maccon, Earl of Woolsey, the Alpha werewolf who runs the Bureau of Unnatural Registry.

The start of Soulless feels a bit uneven and stilted until the story gets moving and the reader gets used to Carriger's voice. It's written in the style of a comedy of manners and takes delight in long words and a semi-formal style. For example:

The vampire recovered his equanimity quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Physical contact broken, his fangs reappeared. Clearly not the sharpest of prongs, he then darted forward from the neck like a serpent, diving in for another chomp.

"I say!" said Alexia to the vampire. "We have not even been introduced!"

Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn't. The frequency with which it works seemed to me to increase as the book went along.

The best thing this book has going for it is the character of Alexia Tarabotti. Rather than the typical kick-ass female protagonist of a modern urban fantasy novel, Alexia is not cynical, battle-hardened, or courageously sarcastic. Her attitude for most of the book is something closer to bemusement crossed with exasperation. She sees herself as an outsider, has largely given up on fitting into any sort of proper society, and has little use for the expectations of her family. But she's still embedded within her culture, still shocked (at least momentarily) by breaches in etiquette, and quite able to fit in, if a bit uncomfortably. Her delightfully logical tone and constant open-minded self-analysis is what made this book for me.

The plot is fairly straightforward (and has a bit too much anti-science flavor for me). The romance angle, which is reasonably obvious from early on in the book, was entertaining mostly in Alexia's combination of thoughtful analysis (based in part on her father's extensive and not entirely acceptable library) and runaway physical reactions, although I thought the latter was slightly overdone. But all the elements of the story improve noticably towards the end of the book. I was unenthused by the halfway point, but by the time I finished Soulless, I decided I would probably read the sequel.

This is more in the enjoyably fun reading pile than a book that I would go to great effort to acquire, and it has a somewhat rocky start, but I enjoyed it and would mildly recommend it.

Followed by Changeless.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-01-17

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21