Soulless by Gail Carriger
Steampunk got old fast, didn’t it? (Bad dum dum.) While it’s been around, in some fashion, since the Victorian era, the retrofuturistic genre exploded and imploded in the late aughts so fast that you can now purchase t-shirts mocking steampunk as “when Goths discovered brown”, there’s a Kate Beaton comic featuring Isambard Kingdom Brunel rolling his eyes at a time-traveler showing off his boots covered in gears and watches, and there’s even a song about how the aesthetic is being co-opted on a shallow level. Steampunk remains a thriving genre, especially when the imperialism, racism, and sexism of Victoriana is questioned, but there’s no doubt that steampunk’s moment in the mainstream sun is on the wain.
Which is to say that Soulless, released at the very height of the recent steampunk explosion, feels a little dated—not so much in its actual content, but in the sense that this was the cutting edge at the time and is no longer. It’s like watching Star Wars for the first time having grown up in the post-Star Wars world, although the turnaround is much shorter here. Through no fault of its own, Soulless is breathlessly fresh and current—for 2009.
Trends and timeliness aside, the first third of Soulless is rough. The premise is solid—steampunk urban fantasy where Alexia Tarabotti, a spinster whose soulless status renders her immune to supernatural creatures, gets involved in an investigation into the appearance of new, untutored vampires in London—but where it stumbles, at first, is characterization and voice. The Excepto-Girl narrative disgusts me; throwing shade on other ladies to compliment another lady (“You’re not like other girls!” is, at heart, a femmephobic isolation tactic, friends) is something I want no part of. When I was told just how feisty, sassy, and superior Alexia was to other women on page one, my hackles were raised. Later in the narrative, I realized the way that Alexia looks at other women is shaded by her upbringing as the devalued and “exotic” intellectual black sheep of her family. But because the point of view is so muddled, it’s difficult to parse out character perspective from narrative perspective. Although she starts off wholly in Alexia’s perspective, Carriger leaps merrily from head to head with nary a paragraph break or any other kind of formatting to let us know.
It was not a promising start. But, eventually, the perspective problem stabilizes (although never resolves—it might in the rest of the series, although I am not moved enough to investigate) and Alexia stops judging other women, since she has more important things to worry about. The latter problem really improves with the introduction of Alexia’s two dearest friends: Ivy, a sweet woman with a hideous taste in haberdashery, and Lord Akeldama, an outrageous fop of a vampire, whose dialogue is quite heavy on the italics. It’s best to see her in context, although there’s a certain flatness to how Alexia’s half-sisters are caricatured that I don’t care for.
But it’s easy to caricature in a romp—and Soulless is undoubtedly a romp. The mystery itself is more or less an excuse for Alexia and Lord Maccon, the handsome, Scottish, and lycanthropic head of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, to spar, miscommunicate, and have feelings about each other. Not that the mystery is sidelined or ignored, but Carriger focuses much more on the characters and the worldbuilding, which is probably why the Parasol Protectorate has become such a popular series. The characters—the ones we’re supposed to like, at least—are very engaging, although slightly deeper character development is reserved only for Alexia. The worldbuilding is solid, with Carriger arriving at the current configuration not by rule of cool, but by using the supernatural to explain why an island nation became an empire.
Soulless is quick and fun: given that one of Carriger’s inspirations for the series was the constant influx of BBC costume dramas, it’s easy to picture a television miniseries following the adventures of Miss Tarabotti. But it also slips off the mind very quickly. As I’m writing this review, I’m only one book away from this reading, and I’m having trouble remembering bits and pieces. It’s sweet, entertaining work, but more a lovely bit of pastry (perhaps treacle tart?) than anything else.
Bottom line: After a rough start, Soulless settles down into a fun, quick romp, albeit one that doesn’t stick to the ribs.
I rented this book from the public library.