I’m off revising some work for another project, so you get a retro review, from March 21, 2010, of a not exactly obscure book. So far, I’ve only read one of its sequels which you’ll get a retro review of eventually.
Review: Soulless, Gail Carriger, 2009.
It’s the Italian blood, you see. That’s what makes Alexia so outspoken and hot tempered. And, of course, it didn’t help in the looks department: too prominent of nose, olive-colored skin, and dark hair. All the gift of her dead Italian father and not exactly the sort of thing London society favors. And it certainly does not help that she has spent so much time in her father’s library reading about philosophy and science and the supernatural. Little wonder she’s a spinster of 25.
Alexia has another inheritance from her father, one known only to her and the Queen Victoria’s government. She is a preternatural, that rarest of creatures in a world that not only acknowledges the presence of vampires and werewolves but has legalized and tamed them with laws and registration. Having no other prospects and a curious mind, she would like to work for the BUR, the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, which manages these unnaturals. Her knowledge and preternatural abilities – essentially the capability to neutralize via touch the powers of vampires and werewolves – would be useful she feels. A point reinforced, she notes, when she kills a rouge vampire at a dance with her silver tipped parasol. (It’s not for nothing that this series is called the Parasol Protectorate.) However, the BUR head , Lord Maccon, will have none of a gentlewoman working for him though he does rather admire her fierce alpha ways which remind him of the women of his native Highlands. And, for her part, the handsome, hulking werewolf Maccon brings some interesting visions to Alexia’s mind and sensations to her body.
I’m not a fan of vampire novels and the current trend to throw them together with werewolves seem a last gasp to get some more literary life out of the undead and usually comes off as contrived. There is a bit of that here. However, to her credit, Carriger does create a credible alternate history around these creations with their presence becoming tolerated in England before Queen Elizabeth’s time. (Things are quite different on the Continent and in America. In those lands, the persecution continues.) Feudalism and the administrative structure of the Roman Empire are said to have been inspired by vampire society and methods of reproduction. That’s fine, but the touch of British military tactics deriving from the hunting methods of werewolf packs seems kind of silly and unexplained and very unobvious. Carriger goes to a lot of trouble to emphasize the wolf aspect of werewolf society which, to my mind, was a plus since I’ve long thought werewolves more interesting than vampires.
But it wasn’t the presence of either that got me to pick up this book. It was the promise of steampunk elements and wit. And both were delivered. To be sure, Alexia never sets foot on one of the dirigibles we hear about, but we do get some interesting alternate Victorian science and lab equipment as the secret of the supernaturals – an electrical essence? a contagion? – is studied. And the book is quite funny in its third person narrative. Alexia, in her obsession with science, food, and fashion, is thoroughly up to carrying a series as a character. And the humor is helped by her circle of family, servants, and friends which include a foppish vampire and a woman dedicated to persistently violating good taste in her hat purchases.
Yes, there is a romance and a funny one. It is not really an Austen style romance though. Famously, in Austen novels, no one ever kisses. Here the meetings of Maccon and Alexia constantly escalate in intimacy, the physical aspects described in wittily oblique ways. (Science is not the only thing the curious Alexia read in her father’s library. There were those books on primitive peoples and their practices.)
The pacing is quite effective with those meetings frustratingly shortened. The action is vivid as the central mystery of whom is creating – and killing – supernatural creatures without BUR’s permission is solved.
In short, a humorous novel very satisfying in style if not that original in its ideas. I look forward to Alexia Tarabotti’s further adventures.