Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Review: Soulless by Gail Carriger

Victorian high-society full of vampires, werewolves, dirigibles, and tea-drinking. A description much like the one above intrigued me – just a bit tongue-in-cheek, but also self-aware enough to earn a smile. Soulless by Gail Carriger (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) does indeed meet that description…and more (there is even…wait for it…romance).

Alexia Tarabotti is an aging spinster in the high-society of Victorian London. She has a sharp tongue, independent mind, and is cursed with the Italian blood, complexion and name of her long-dead father. She spends her days tolerating family and chaperoning her younger half-sisters, who have real potential in the game of society, to one social event or another. Miss Tarabotti is also registered with the estimable Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR), a division of Her Majesty’s Civil Service, as a preternatural, the yin to the yang of supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. An assault by a horribly rude and mannerless vampire sets the stage for the adventures to come.

Soulless is a fun mix of Victorian romance, steampunk, alternative history, and urban fantasy. While there is a more than adequate plot to add mystery and suspense, Soulless is a romance at its heart. Lord Maccon is the Scottish fourth Earl of Woolsey, head of the BUR and the Alpha male of the Woolsey Werewolf Pack. Miss Tarabotti and Lord Maccon engage in the standard dance of antagonizing love-hate banter, beginning with the latter and ending with the former.

Carriger utilizes an almost flippant humor throughout Soulless. Soulless is snarky – well, it’s at least witty, but the self-awareness of the wit leads me to call it snark. And it’s the self-aware aspect to the humor that works – like it works for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While the dialogue is often too witty, it obviously isn’t taking itself overly seriously either, making the comedy of romance much more enjoyable. Carriger also peppers dialogue and thoughts with language that feels much more modern than Victorian English – I took this yet another sign of the self-aware, tongue-in-cheek quality underlying much of Soulless.

On a related note, Carriger seems to have a strong understanding of the underlying sexual metaphor behind supernatural creatures such as vampires and werewolves – she embraces the metaphor in not a wholly proper way and then embellishes. Vampires are all style and effeminate beauty (even gay) as well as the inspiration for Victorian social structure. Werewolves are all testosterone, barely-controlled animal virility, and the brains behind the military might of the British Empire. The underlying sexual tension of Victorian prudishness is brilliantly balanced against the metaphor, and Miss Tarabotti’s innocence, curiosity, and sharp tongue lead to some rather humorous moments, even if a bit overboard.

Unfortunately, Carriger’s style of writing also suffers from one of my biggest pet peeves – unclear breaks in point of view. The point of view often jumps from character to character, regardless of them being major or minor characters, without warning or break. This is often confusing, always annoying, and slows down pace of the narrative.

Carriger combines a sense of the modern world with Sense and Sensibility in Victorian England with a dash of steampunk and a healthy dose of the supernatural. The aware, confident whit and self-deferential humor help make Soulless a fun and quick read with a rather clever premise. And the adventures of Miss Tarabotti continue in The Parasol Protectorate series with Changeless (
Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) and forthcoming Blameless (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound). 7.5/10


Unknown said...

I started reading this one and had to put it down because of the POV breaks. It was such an interesting premise, but the POV thing just drove me crazy.

Neth said...

I was able to get past it. But it helped because I started reading this on a plane and the other books I packed had been gate-checked.

Fence said...

oh, now that does sound fun, even with the POV issues.

RobB said...

For once, our reading tastes diverge. I started liking it, but about 100 pages in, I was getting more and more annoyed.

Neth said...

Rob, perhaps we have the exception that prooves the rule?


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