BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In steam-punk Victorian London, a lady teams up with a werewolf to track down people creating rogue vampires.
PROS: A wonderfully fun read, from start to finish.
CONS: Sometimes the Austen-esque elements get laid on a little thick.
BOTTOM LINE: A fun romp that combines mystery, adventure, steam-punk and romance.
Steampunk and the Victorian Era go together like Girl and Genius. Paranormal and romance go together like vampires and sparkles (or goths, if you’re old-school). What happens when you mix all four together with a bit of Jane Austen for seasoning? Something rather more fun than the sum of its parts, I’d say.
The background world in Gail Carriger’s debut novel Soulless, is basically Victorian England with added zeppelins, alchemy, vampires, werewolves and ghosts. Everyone knows about the paranormal entities–in fact many of them even have cult followings and celebrity status. Regulated by the government, vampire nests (ruled by queens) recruit humans to be their servants and blood donors in exchange for the hope of immortality (though few survive the transition). During full moons, werewolves likewise hand over the keys to their cells to human clavigers. They have their own governmental bodies to keep their communities (and each other’s) in check, chief of which is the BUR.
Miss Alexia Tarabotti is our heroine, and she is soulless. This means that any vampire or werewolf who comes into contact with her is immediately reverted to their baseline human form–she negates their excess of soul. She is fiercely intelligent and wonderfully sarcastic, all of which has left her nigh-unto-unmarriageable at the advanced age of 26.
The book begins with a newly formed vampire assaulting her. That’s a problem–any vampire converted by a hive queen would have been thoroughly educated about her powers, nor would they ever be so rude as to attack a lady at a party. Alexia is forced to stake him with a sturdy wooden hair pin, and thus becomes ensnared in a mystery. To aid in solving it she unofficially teams up with Lord Conall Maccon, the alpha werewolf of London and head of the BUR. We meet Lord Maccon’s beta, Professor Lyall, and Lord Akeldama, a flamboyantly gay independent vampire. The narrative also introduces several less-paranormal support characters including Alexia’s family (who would be much happier in a Jane Austen novel than a paranormal romance), and her best friend Ivy of the atrociously extravagant hats. It is a rich and funny cast of characters that will help flesh out other books as the series continues. (Soulless is book one of the Alexia Tarrabotti series, of which book two, Changeless is already slated for an April 2010 release date.)
One mystery that won’t linger until the second book is the attraction between Alexia and Lord Maccon. From the first time they are on stage together they snipe at each other; a sure sign that they are meant to be together. I was afraid that this rather overwhelming sexual tension would be strung out over multiple books, but thankfully Carriger does not let too many pages stand between these two and their heavily-signaled destiny.
The steampunk details come through in passages such as this:
Professor Lyall turned the body over. “What happened here?” … He paused, rummaged about in his coat pockets, and produced a diminutive leather case. He clicked it open and removed a most bizarre pair of gogglelike things. They were gold in color with multiple lenses on one side, between which there appeared to be some kind of liquid. The contraption was also riddled with small knobs and dials. Professor Lyall propped the ridiculous things onto his nose and bent back over the vampire, twiddling at the dials expertly.
“Goodness gracious me,” exclaimed Alexia, “what are you wearing? It looks like the unfortunate progeny of an illicit union between a pair of binoculars and some opera glasses. What on earth are they called, binoticals, spectoculars?”
And the romance in passages such as this:
It was not the kind of kiss Alexia had ever experienced before. Not that she had been kissed all that frequently prior to this particular point in time. There were a few aberrations in her youth when some rogue or other thought a young and swarthy chaperone might be an easy mark. In such cases, the experience had been sloppy and, due to her ever-present and aptly applied parasol, brief. Lord Maccon’s kiss was expertly administered. From his enthusiasm, Miss Tarabotti felt he might be trying to make up for her previous deficit in the arena of kissing. He was doing a bang-up job of it.
All of it, plus the mystery, the chase, and some unexplained hints of C’thulhu, add up to a very fast, very fun romp of a novel. I did occasionally roll my eyes at some slightly over-done romance scenes and some dialog that felt overmuch like Austen pastiche, but other than that this book doesn’t leave you a lot of time for poking about with a critical eye. It takes off running and doesn’t really stop. I also like the heroine quite a bit. She’s not conventionally beautiful, and it’s not the sort of thing where when she lets down her hair and takes off her glasses she’s actually gorgeous. Her figure is described as ‘generous,’ and her appearance as swarthy, not the sort of beauty to make waves in London society. She and Lord Maccon come together based on her personality and sharp intelligence, and she never once surrenders to being a sappy girl. All in all, I very much enjoyed this light and fast-paced read, and I suspect that I will enjoy the second book as well when it comes out.
Full disclosure: Gail Carriger is a friend-of-a-friend of mine. I knew she had a book coming out, and really enjoyed her book launch room party at WFC last year. It featured lots of folks dressed up in Victoriana and steam-punk garb, and had people passing around dishes of British tea biscuits and sandwiches, and also rather a lot of alcohol. I didn’t buy her book at the Con, but when I downloaded the Kindle app are to my iPhone (on which I do more than 50% of my reading now), I decided to make Soulless my test purchase. I didn’t like the app very much: no search capability, and I couldn’t change the ‘page turn’ gesture to something more convenient. Also, since the Amazon vs. Macmillan debacle, I’ve sworn off Amazon in any case. (Stanza is my iPhone reader app pick for now.) But none of that diminished my enjoyment of Soulless as a fun, relaxing read over my Christmas break. (Which gives you some idea of how behind I am on writing. Sigh.)