Published 2009 357 pages
Summary (from the book jacket)
Alexia Tarabotti is labouring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she's a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.
Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire - and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.
With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London's high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?
Soulless is the debut novel from Gail Carriger and the first book in the genre-bending “Parasol Protectorate” series. The book jacket promises “A novel of vampires, werewolves and parasols” and doesn’t fail to deliver on any of those counts. Victorian romance is seamlessly combined with urban fantasy and alternative history. Add a dash of steampunk and the result is possibly the most original and entertaining fantasy novel that I have read this year.
The main idea behind the fantasy world of Soulless is that vampires and werewolves have been known to humans for hundreds of years. They have a role in government and both the werewolves and the vampires have an elected official who advises Queen Victoria on matters supernatural. There is even the suggestion that the Great British Empire is only well, Great, due to the influence of these advisors throughout history.
The vampire and werewolf mythology is a departure from the usual too, with these supernatural creatures (and ghosts) thought to be the result of when a person has an excess of soul. This pseudo-scientific explanation, completely unsupported by evidence but still widely accepted, is in keeping with the Victorian timeframe of the story. Most of the science expounded in Soulless is of a similar ilk – theories that could be debunked or proved by our modern science are still just unproven scientific guesses in this Victorian time.
Alexia has no soul. This makes her preternatural, rather than supernatural, and she has the effect of negating the supernatural when she comes into close contact with it. If touching a vampire or werewolf she can make them completely mortal again, the theory of the day being that her soullessness takes away the excess of soul that supernatural creatures possess. No reason for Alexia’s soulless state is given, except that her father was soulless and she inherited this lack of soul from him. Alexia’s soulless state makes her a very rare commodity and could open the door to all kinds of supernatural adventures for her - except that this is Victorian England and she is an unmarried young lady and therefore it’s just not the done thing to go around having adventures.
While Soulless is written in the style of proper English literature, with Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse clearly influencing both story content and language, the book is a modern work with much stronger romance themes (okay, sexy bits) than you would ever find in the pages of Victorian literature. As a result the story is a hugely readable mixture of manners, romance and mystery.
Alexia’s character reminds me in many ways of Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. She is an intelligent and sensible woman, saddled with silly sisters and an even sillier mother who fail to understand that she is happy to be different to them. They are unaware of her soulless state, which is just as well since they have despaired of Alexia ever being socially acceptable on account of her half-Italian status, olive skin and assertive personality – soullessness would just be too much of an additional burden for her family. Only Alexia is reminiscent of a character from Pride and Prejudice. It's fair to say that Lord Maccon, the aggravating werewolf thorn in Alexia's side and her potential lover, bears no resemblance to Mr Darcy!
Although this book has some steampunk elements, hardcore steampunk fans may be disappointed with Soulless. There aren’t too many weird stream inventions or bizarre technologies in this book and what there are don’t have a large part to play in the story either. Mostly Soulless is a Victorian romance threaded with a solid mystery plotline, set in a world that contains vampires and werewolves. It takes the best parts of the urban fantasy, romance, mystery and alternative history genres adds a dash of steampunk, wraps it up in a coating of Victorian sensibility and manages to turn to it into something that is more than the sum of its parts.
If you are bored with the same old urban fantasy or paranormal romance themes, or feel like you just can’t face another leather-pant-wearing, gun-toting urban fantasy heroine, then Soulless may be just the book you need to cleanse your jaded palate.
Original, entertaining and fun, Soulless is highly recommended reading.
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