The Story: Soulless, the first novel in the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger, introduces readers to the plucky, parasol-wielding Alexia Tarabotti. But Alexia’s composed appearance hides a compelling secret – she has no soul. This “gift” actually enables her to intermingle with London’s paranormal citizens, from vampires to werewolves, which comes in handy at times. But after Alexia attacks a vampire at a party, more vampires turn up missing and she becomes a prime suspect. Can Alexia clear her good Italian name or will she be accused of acting most rudely?
My Take: For starters, how cool is this cover? This is one of those rare cases where the cover’s model became my mental image of the lead character and it was a perfect fit.
All surface observations aside, I confess that I have read this novel twice and wanted so badly to enjoy it because the characters, setting, and premise were all cleverly crafted. Unfortunately, it just never clicked with me.
First of all, I love Gail Carriger’s writing style. I find her dry humor, sardonic tone, and observant descriptions to be enjoyably entertaining, witty, and charming. In fact, her voice is so distinctive that I think I could peruse something of hers without knowing it and correctly guess she had penned it. So in terms of the style of this book and its delivery, I had no complaints. Carriger is one of very few American authors who can pull off a British style and voice with few hiccups, so for that I try to read anything she writes.
Also, Alexia Tarabotti, the lead protagonist, is spunky, smart, and (most of all) memorable. Thus, she avoids being a trope in that she has a unique personal trait – Alexia is devoid of a soul. This doesn’t make her an evil person, just…well…soulless. While we’re never told why she lacks a soul, her soullessness is simply woven into the novel as a fact, which causes it to be believable without the need for extensive scenes of info-dumping. Her soulless state tends to complicate matters (aside from the fact she is still single and has an Italian father), both in the normal world and in paranormal circles. But it adds tension to the rest of the plot as well as affects how Alexia interacts with other characters, especially in the underworld element. As a lead, I felt she rightfully stole the show and I enjoyed her character’s development.
Along the same lines, the incorporation of the paranormal (chiefly vampires and werewolves) and the Victorian steampunk setting were welded together nicely though I would say that the paranormal aspects tended to overshadow the steampunk elements. But, all in all, they fit together and generated a good blending. Also worth noting is that the vampire and werewolf characters here stay true to their mythology’s roots without bending too much of what’s already been established by convention (so no glittering vampires here!), yet they assume their own unique characteristics that enable them to become good fits in the story’s world.
While the world building and characters were lively and fun, to tell the truth, I didn’t feel there was much of a plot. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not as if there is no story at all. But it was like the general action seemed to be Alexia interacting with various members of the underworld, from a dandy vampire to the ferocious Lord Maccon who becomes Alexia’s love interest. Granted, there is a mystery element thrown in, but much of the novel’s early to middle portions focus more on drawing room politics.
The novel starts off strong and with promise as Alexia kills a vampire in a rather humorous way, which snowballs into a rash of slayings (that are less than funny) and she is seen as the culprit. (Having no soul will cause people to think you, well, have no soul!) But I felt like there were too many parlor-hopping moments and exposition scenes, which caused this novel to read more like a comedy of manners than a paranormal steampunk mystery. So to say the book had no plot isn’t entirely fair; it simply didn’t possess enough speed for my liking and bears too many Jane Austen-esque hallmarks of extended dialogue sequences. In the end, I really wanted to enjoy this novel and the writing is a blast to engage, but it just never seemed to fully invite me in.
Language -Minimal and not pervasive.
Violence -Most of the violence is rather tame and typically described in humorous tones, not in an attempt to make fun of violence but to keep it light to match the rest of the book’s delivery. It is worth noting that there are some bloodier scenes towards the end of the novel as the “mystery” comes to a close.
Sexual Content -This novel contains a few sex scenes, particularly involving Alexia and Lord Maccon, and most of these moments go on for a few of pages. While the description tries to be vague and can be comical at times, it’s no secret what Alexia and Maccon are up to. I wouldn’t label this as erotica as the focus of the story isn’t on the main characters’ sexual relationship, but I, personally, dislike books that have to provide a play-by-play of their characters’ bedroom (or in this case parlor) escapades.
Fans of paranormal steampunk will probably enjoy this (content issues notwithstanding). Carriger, to her credit, carves out her own unique style and it is certainly worth engaging if you never had before. Overall, Soulless has its bright moments but its slow plot and semi-graphic sex scenes were enough for me to not give this novel a third reading.