Soulless, Gail Carriger’s debut novel, was published by Orbit in October of 2009. It has since become a four book series, with a fifth scheduled for March 2012. The Parasol Protectorate, or the Alexia Tarrabotti novels as they are alternatively known, are solid examples of steampunk mixed with more than a dash of a British style comedy of manners.
Let’s start with the introductions
Soulless features the protagonist Miss Alexia Tarrabotti, who has several unfortunate characteristics. Her Italian father is dead, leaving her with her oh-so-English mother, stepfather and half-sisters in Victorian London. She also suffers from the rare condition of having no soul. She is therefore unfashionably pragmatic and has almost no artistic sentiments. On the upside, her preternatural state can cancel out the supernatural powers of werewolves and vampires if she comes into physical contact with them.
While trying to enjoy some tea undisturbed in a ducal library during an exceptionally dull ball, Miss Terrabotti is set upon by a starving vampire. Having no other recourse, she stakes him with her hair stick. Lord Conall Maccoon, a Scottish Alpha werewolf, is sent by Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government to investigate. Unfortunately for Miss Terrabotti, her now permanently dead vampire is the latest in a string of supernatural disappearances in London. With Lord Maccoon’s grudging and sometimes unwitting help, she sets out to solve this mystery and clear her name.
And on to the particulars
Carriger does a number of things very, very well. First and foremost, her wit is one of the best in the business. Her jokes, puns, and sense of the absurd are fresh, new, and highly entertaining. And really, what period in history is more absurd than late Victorian England? Carriger also deftly sews together several genres: fantasy, romance, mystery, and good British costume drama. I have little doubt that she could write in any one of these genres alone and be successful. The fact that she can do them effectively all at once is impressive. The whole mix works because this is also a consciously humorous book that doesn’t take itself or anything else seriously. Her prose is tight and clean, and the book has great pacing. I was inspired to keep reading, even while I paused to enjoy a particularly toothsome turn of phrase. I wanted to know what on earth this author and her characters were going to get up to next.
A few words of warning
The only weakness in this book is worldbuilding. And there’s a very simple reason for this: Soulless was originally written as a stand-alone novel. The good people at Orbit know a good thing when they see it and asked Carriger to turn it into a series. While a stand-alone novel can afford not to delve into every corner of a world because the plot doesn’t require them to be explored, a series needs those little extras to build future plots in. At the end of Soulless, even though I knew there was a sequel forthcoming, I had no idea where it was going, or even what genre it was going to be based in. That’s not to say that Carriger’s worldbuilding is weak; it’s not. For a stand-alone novel, it’s very good; but while she expanded the book somewhat in order to have something to work with in sequels, there’s a lot that goes unexplained.
A possible limitation of Soulless is the vocabulary that Carriger uses. This is not a book that the average person is likely to be able to pick up and work their way through without a dictionary on hand. Now, I’ve found that people who read speculative fiction are really nothing like the average Joe, and so I expect that many will do all right. Who knows; if you like being exposed to new words and phrases, this may be the book for you. But if you aren’t adventuresome, I’d recommend you find your entertainment elsewhere.
Why should you read this book?
First of all, if you like steampunk, Carriger’s work has become a cornerstone of the genre. Soulless is also a light, refreshing, and highly entertaining book in its own right. There’s never a dull moment, and it is by turns laugh out loud funny. I actually think this may be the funniest book I’ve ever read. This is a book to read when you need a fluffy and frothy piece of escapism. I should put on a caveat: don’t read this book when hungry. Miss Terrabotti is a great lover of food, and is always munching on some tasty morsel or perhaps drinking tea. I’m sure she prefers to do both at once, but only in a tastefully elegant manner. If you’re hungry, you’ll find yourself running to the kitchen in search of battenburg cake or treacle tart.