Jul 11, 2010

Soulless - Gail Carriger

I don't know what drew me to Soulless. Could be the mixture of steampunk, vampires and werewolves; or maybe the Victorian setting, which I really love. Or possibly the little Lovecraftean octopus thingie on the spine. Whatever the reason, I ended up reading a supernatural vampire/werewolf -slash- urban fantasy with a "some name novel" over the title, no less! - something I'm usually averse to. But what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be!

Alexia Tarabotti is a twenty-something spinster with Italian blood, coming from a family of the London middle-high society. She lives in a world where ghosts, werewolves and vampires have become public, to take place at the top of England's aristocracy, working in concert with the Crown. They are supernaturals: people with "too much soul", which allows them to survive the transformation - the bite of a werewolf or a vampire hive queen. Very few have this abundance of soul, and no one knows if they are the lucky ones until the transformation begins. Still, a lot of hopefuls strive for immortality and serve the vampire hives and werewolf packs as drones and clavigers respectively.

Alexia is the very opposite of the supernatural. She is a preternatural, a person with no soul at all, which not only means that she is immune to any supernatural threat, but also that her very touch is a deadly weapon - while she is touching a vampire or a werewolf, they revert back to normal humans for as long as the contact lasts. In the case of ghosts, the touch destroys them completely. In the past, preternaturals have been hunters of the creatures of the night, but nowadays the knowledge of their existence is all but lost. Alexia is a subject of interest to BUR - Bureau of Unnatural Registry (the supernaturals' governing office) - and sometimes helps their leader - the Alpha of Woolsey Pack, Lord Connal Maccoon - with special cases, much to his annoyance. But when she is attacked by a starved vampire who obviously knows nothing of either the laws, or proper behavior in cultured society, both Alexia and Lord Maccoon become entangled in a conspiracy that threatens the whole supernatural community. They are forced to work together despite their mutual dislike, and the result is nothing if not outrageous.

Soulless is an urban fantasy of the romantic variety. Although the story is engaging, the real point of the novel - apart from some pretty decent world-building - is the budding relationship between a strong-willed London woman of unusual origins, and a barely cultured nobleman who could tear a horse in two with his bare hands. The combination is explosive and at times hilarious, and even if the reader knows right from the beginning how that part of the story will end, it is still highly entertaining to read the verbal dueling between the two main characters.

Gail Carriger tries to tread the path of Susanna Clarke, and even though her style of writing is nowhere near the immaculate pseudo-Victorian beauty of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, she still manages to playfully imitate the posturing, conventions and politeness of expression of the high society of that era. Her attempts are at times clumsy, and at other times way too in-your-face, but for the most part Soulless creates a great - if a bit comical - atmosphere of an English aristocracy that manages to be quite the same foppish and pretentious bunch of gossiping bigots as it was in real life, despite the presence of the undying among them.

All in all, Soulless is a pretty good read, and delightfully playful one. There is enough action, romance, balls and lace to satisfy anyone, and even some horror here and there. The concept of the vampires, werewolves and their servants is also well developed, and the only reason not to like the book would be a (completely reasonable) dislike for supernatural romance. However, as a fellow hater, I can assure you that Carriger doesn't let herself get carried away, and both Alexia and Lord Maccoon are way too likable characters to annoy the reader with their clumsy flirting.

So, if you are into urban fantasy, and/or supernatural romance, and/or pseudo-Victorian language and style of writing, then Soulless is a must. Even if one of the three does not apply, you should still give it a try. I doubt you'll be sorry.


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