“Soulless” by Gail Carriger

17 Aug

Soulless is, without a doubt, the best book you will read this year.

 This sounds like a grand statement, I know. Not everyone likes a steampunk Victorian England inhabited by werewolves and vampires, after all. However, I am confident in my assertion that this book will be enjoyable even to people who usually shy away from every single trope and genre it embraces.

 Our protagonist is Alexia Tarabotti, twentysomething bachelorette (or rather, spinster) living in Victorian London, where a small amount of vampires, werewolves and ghosts coexist openly (if not always happily) with the human population. What enables one to become a supernatural creature is an “excess of soul,” which leaves Alexia safe from such a dire fate, seeing as she has absolutely no soul to speak of.

 The book is part steampunk adventure, part Victorian murder mystery, part romance novel, part coming-of-age story and part parody of all the above. Alexia is probably the best crafted protagonist I’ve seen in recent years, despite the rise the Young Adult genre, full of female protagonists and coming-of-age stories. Alexia is resourceful, witty, clever, pushy, forever exasperated and intrigued with the world. She’s hindered by her social circumstances – an unwed woman from a proper family can hardly go and do as she pleases – but the author avoids the trap of so many pseudo-historical novels that make their heroines either too timid or unconvincingly rebellious. Alexia is very much a product of her time, always believably a few steps ahead of the social consensus, but never entirely disregarding it either.

 Initially unaccustomed to having all-night adventures or actively flirting with the objects of her desire, Alexia’s arc is a learning curve. In addition to the marvelous world building and fast paced mystery-adventure plot, Carriger manages to draw a realistic, compelling and cohesive portrait of a woman coming into her own. Alexia finds herself in the middle of a plot involving Her Majesty’s top vampires and werewolves, political intrigue and scheming government officials. However, she deals with the ensuing chaos using her trademark sarcasm, practicality, and a few trusted allies.

 The supporting cast characters is as colorful as it is brilliantly constructed. There’s Lord Akeldama, unofficially the head of a major vampire intelligence organization, officially the life of every social occasion in the capital and the patron of dozens of attractive young men he likes to have as house guests. There’s Madam LeFoux, a crossdressing, French inventor-scientist who equips Alexia with the latest gadgets, there’s Professor Lyall, the mild mannered second-in-command to England’s chief werewolf and “a professor of nothing in particular”. All of these are seamlessly integrated into the mystery and romance plots and serve to enhance the richness of Carriger’s universe with deft, subtle touches.

 Additionally, the book is laugh-out-loud hilarious. The author crafts an elaborate parody of Victorian society and uses every opportunity for a punch line. The opening scene of the book has Alexia having tea in the library, during a ball (she was promised food, and decides the rudeness of requesting it from the servants is outweighed by the deception of her hosts), where she is suddenly attacked by a vampire. Alexia’s powers – her soullessness, a closely guarded secret – cancel out the vampire’s excess of soul and render him human, and thus unable to harm her. The ensuing fuss is, of course, largely to do with the inappropriate nature of strange vampires attacking ladies without a proper social introduction.

In terms of the romance plot, I feel obliged to take my hat off at Carriger’s achievement – she’s done what I truly thought was an impossible feat for a writer these days. She’s written a story with a female protagonist that contains a romantic relationship but where that relationship never overwhelms the rest of the narrative or the protagonist’s personal journey. And, most importantly, where that relationship is believable. Instead of choosing the easy path of so many of her colleagues, Carriger creates a relationship that works and makes sense, that contains conflicts and contradictions and genuine affection. Carriger takes great care to build it painstakingly, brick by brick, initially tricking the reader into thinking she’s enacting a mere farce of a typical romance novel.

Finally, as I’ve seen some reviewers mention this negatively, let me address the book’s use of modern language and writing style. In an interview Carriger once mentioned that she originally wrote the book using more authentic Victorian English, but later, on the advice of her editor decided to revise the prose to something much more modern. In my opinion, this is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. It allows the prose to be quick, witty and precise, to serve and enhance the other elements of the narrative. This is a book that’s already packed full of content and punch lines, having the language be such an obvious parody of Victorian speech (for example, having a Lord say “Whoa, there, Miss Tarabotti!”) accentuates the humoristic aspects of the narrative right from the start and serves as a constant reminder that the author is aware of the kind of story she’s writing. Victorian mores are mocked, lovingly, throughout, and the modern vocabulary and phrasing become an important tool in that endeavor.

In short, this is a book with fantastic pacing, multiple engaging plots, imaginative world building and colorful, cohesive, compelling characters that earns its dramatic climaxes the hard way. Oh, and it’s also chock full of humor for every palate. If a book has been released in the last few years that’s more deserving of your time and attention than Gail Carriger’s Soulless, it has not yet come to my attention.

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