Author: Gail Carriger
Genre: Romance, Horror/Fantasy
Publishing Date: September 29, 2009
Paperback: 384 pages
Stand Alone or series: Book one in a planned series, titled The Parasol Protectorate.
Summary: (from amazon.com)
Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.
Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire — and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.
With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London’s high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?
SOULLESS is a comedy of manners set in Victorian London: full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking.
We are doing something different with this here review: instead of our usual joint template, we are going with a more laid-back layout, due to our mixed feelings concerning Soulless. Warning: There may be some very MINOR spoilers ahead!
Soulless was one of my most anticipated reads of 2009 ever since I heard about it towards the end of the last year. The setting is Victorian times with steampunk elements, with werewolves and vampires, a quirky spinster soulless heroine who can cancel the aforementioned creatures’ supernaturality (yay, new made-up word) and whose “power” would lead her to be a major player in the supernatural world. For all intents and purposes, I was supposed to absolutely adore this book. Even the very manner in which I came by to own an arc of it was, to me, an indication that this book and I were meant to be: I was on Twitter one day, back when folks were at the BEA and Sarah from the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books tweeted that she was in line to talk to the author, I tweeted saying “OMG I SO want her book” and Sarah, whom I have never met, nor exchanged emails with or anything, offered to get me a signed copy and mail it to me. (seriously, how awesome is that?) . I got the book and kept it until last week when it was the time to read it.
I opened the book and started to read. It begins with our intrepid heroine, Miss Alexia Tarabotti who is a half-Italian, dark haired, somewhat ugly, spinster (I could feel something stirring at the back of my mind) sitting alone in a room trying to eat treacle tarts when she is attacked by a vampire. Her first reaction is to think how inappropriate it was to be attacked so and how the tarts were going to be wasted like that (a warning signal started to sound in my ears), then a fight ensues and she kills him with her trusted parasol. Before I could recover from the shock of that revelation, a man walks into the room, one Lord Maccon who was described as a huge, gruff man who could not abide Alexia’s logic and their dialogue is replete with half bickering half attraction.
At that very moment, I felt like I was struck by lightning.
Because, if you remove the “vampire” from the equation and replace the character names with “Amelia” and “Emerson,” you have Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody set up right there! From the characters’ physical description, to Alexia’s quirkiness, to the H/H dynamics, DOWN TO THE TRUSTED PARASOL.
I had a moment of utter befuddlement then. I sent Thea a flurry of emails in which I went through a Grief Cycle. First it was Denial: “This can’t be happening.” Then, it was Anger: “I can’t believe this. Down to the trusted parasol??????” Then it was Depression: “I so wanted to love this book, Thea,” and finally, Acceptance: in which I decided to resume reading. Because of the premise of the soulless character, because of my expectations, I decided to carry on. I hoped that the characters would grow on their own, that the story itself would be sufficient to nullify this first impression.
I read another 200 pages of it. I really tried to get involved in the story but two things prevented me from doing so. One, every time Alexia thought or spoke I had Amelia Peabody’s voice at the back of my mind. I am aware of being completely unfair here – she is not EXACTLY like Amelia, but her quirkiness is close enough, familiar enough for me not to be comfortable with it. Plus at some parts it felt SO forced. The success of this book relies heavily in the reader’s ability to fall in love with Alexia’s originality – but she is not an Original to me. I don’t know. Maybe other people who read Amelia Peabody would like Soulless because it reminds them of Peabody.
The other point that made me step back and not enjoy this as much: there is a lot of romance here. Like, a LOT. I have no problem with romance, heck it is my favourite genre and even in other genres, whenever there is romance , I am happy. But the spine of the book says: Horror/Fantasy. And there is no HORROR in this book at all. Yes, there are Fantasy elements but in my not so modest opinion, Soulless was completely mislabeled. This should be Paranormal Romance. The mislabeling makes me angry: what is wrong with labeling a book for what it is? If you are publishing something that is clearly Paranormal Romance, OWN IT. The worst thing is this: I can see that people who like Paranormal Romance and would completely enjoy Soulless will give this a pass and not pick it up because of the Horror/Fantasy label!
Having said that, if I like romance why did it prevent me from liking this? Because there was one scene where Alexia and Maccon have been captured, are locked in a cell, were given one hour to live and they decide that it was the best time for making out. COME ON.
That was when I realised that I was predisposed NOT to like this book from the get go and decided to put it away. It made me sad, but I was aware that perhaps I was not being fair. I needed a second opinion, preferably from someone who also loves Amelia Peabody. I needed Thea. And so I sent the book to her.
As Ana’s said before me, Soulless was a book we were BOTH very excited about (in fact, I’m the one that alerted Ana’s attention to said book). I was more than a little jealous when she told me she received an ARC, but I waited patiently for my turn with the book. And then, when Ana finally started to read it, the emails started to pour in. Ana was completely dejected and let down – and she desperately needed a second opinion. And, thus, she immediately sent the book to me after she could not finish it. At this point, I was very nervous, and had brought my reader expectations down a whole bunch. But, I was willing to give Soulless a fair shot.
And…the result? I’m left with mixed feelings.
On the dominant side of these mixed emotions is a firm agreement with Ana. Alexia Tarabotti is indeed very much Amelia Peabody, right down to the physical descriptions: long, unruly dark locks, a lack of self-esteem in the appearance department, darker tanned skin, the generous curves so out of vogue with the current fashions, and of course, the Parasol. If you’ve read Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books, you will recognize this immediately. Heck, even the names are similar, phonetically: Alexia Tarabotti vs. Amelia Peabody. Perhaps Ms. Carriger is a huge fan of Amelia’s – I know that both Ana and I certainly are! – and this was an homage of sorts. But there’s a difference between homage and that uncomfortable too-close sensation, and unfortunately, Alexia inspired the latter in me. Keep in mind, there’s also Lord Maccon who is every bit Emerson Radcliffe to Alexia’s Amelia. He’s growly and loud and brawny and attractive, and of course, completely taken with Alexia’s pigheaded, logical nature.
In itself, this isn’t too bad – I found that I could keep reading despite some disappointment in the originality department. But then…other things started to pop up. Other Amelia-isms, for example:
‘Alexia!’ Lord Maccon groaned his frustration. Miss Tarabotti realized that the earl’s use of her given name indicated a certain degree of irritation on his part.
~ from Soulless
‘Forget Ramses,’ Emerson said. ‘I insist, Amelia, that you tell me what is worrying you.’ Despite his smile he was not in good temper with me; his use of my proper name indicated as much. ‘Peabody,’ my maiden name, is the one he uses in moments of marital or professional approbation. With a sigh, I yielded.
~ from Lion in the Valley
It’s more than a little bit distracting, and I could immediately understand Ana’s frustration with the book. I have to concur with Ana’s claim that the lynchpin of Soulless is in the quirkiness and originality of its heroine, Alexia, and the awkward affections of Lord Maccon. And I’m cool with trying to emulate Amelia Peabody’s quirky narrative. BUT, unfortunately, the sparkle of the dynamic between Alexia and Maccon is not nearly so vibrant when you’ve seen it before – and done much better, even – with Amelia and her dear Emerson.
There were also a number of stylistic and plotting things that bothered me. Alexia’s heritage as a half-italian with tanned skin and a prominent nose and ample bosoms were on a constant loop throughout the book; the hideousness of Miss Ivy’s hats were also emphasized at every appearance of the character; the vampire Lord Akaldama’s flamboyance was flared at every possible occasion. In fact, this is what bothered me the most – more so than the Amelia similarities, Soulless suffered from EXCESS. The repetitiveness of the same descriptions, the excessive discussion of the clothes so and so was wearing, or anytime Lord Akaldama opened his mouth to speak (every other word was italicized, and punctuated with some silly endearment like “sugarplumb!“).
Also, thematically, Soulless suffers from this excess. As Ana mentioned above, the fantasy/horror label is something of a misnomer – this is much more of a paranormal romance, with fantasy elements (not so much any horror, at least, not in my opinion). And it is a damn shame because doubtless, the eager fantasy and horror fans who have been waiting for this book or who decide to give it a shot will be scratching their heads, and the romance readers who are more likely to love this book will bypass it entirely!
Also, there are the steampunk fans to take into consideration. You may have seen that Soulless is also marketed as a Steampunk novel, and this is, in my opinion, one of the most egregious flaws.
There is really nothing steampunk about it. Yes, there is an appearance of ONE dirigible, but it’s in the periphery, as two characters are walking in Hyde Park. There’s an automaton, and some dramatic steam powered machines and theories at the end of the novel, but it none of it seems necessary or integral to the plot in the slightest. There’s no reason why this could not have simply been a Victorian Era novel. Not to mention, Soulless tries to blend Vampires, Werewolves, a Victorian B.P.R.D., AND Steampunk all in a single book! It’s a little too much (again, the excess), and though not impossible to pull off (see Mike Mignola’s Hellboy), it’s a tall order and just doesn’t work here.
Instead, the sparse and shakily integrated steampunk elements come across as trying to take advantage of a burgeoning new market, as opposed to having artistic integrity to the novel. And it’s a shame, because the paranormal element was actually quite intriguing. Which brings me to my final point…
Now, it appears like Ana and I have been ragging on this book for an entire review. Well, we have. BUT while it is important to note these weaknesses, I have to say that Soulless is not without its strengths. Even though I found myself less than impressed with the writing, the mislabeled genre, and the eerily familiar characters, I cannot deny that there was something in this novel that kept me reading. I think that the paranormal aspect of the book was fascinating – I loved the idea of a “soulless” protagonist who has the ability to nullify supernatural powers with a single touch, and the history behind the vampires and werewolves and their full integration into English society (even if Ms. Carriger didn’t quite pull this off believably). I wish that Ms. Carriger focused less on trying to integrate the unnecessary steampunk elements into the book, less on the repetition of descriptions and character quirks that felt forced, and instead focused on this brilliant premise. I loved the idea of an octopus being the moniker of a zealous anti-supernatural faction. While I thought that certain passages were awkward and clunky, and that neither Alexia nor Maccon come off as entirely genuine (Alexia’s use of certain anachronisms, such as:
“Huh, she thought. I do not buy it. I definitely do not feel protected.“
…were jarringly out of place with the time period, and Lord Maccon’s “Scottish” heritage never really felt genuine either), I still felt drawn to these characters against all odds. I love the Amelia Peabody and Emerson-type dynamic, so even this paler imitation was admittedly fun.
And, most importantly, I finished the book.
Now keep in mind, I also felt a compulsion to finish the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, and those certainly were not good books. But the point is, there’s something there. Ms. Carriger, like Ms. Meyer, has the ability to keep a reader wanting to read the book. And, given the good ideas that were buried underneath the disappointments and less-than-impressive writing, I think there’s something worthwhile here, and Ms. Carriger can only improve as an author. So, I will be picking up the next novel – I can’t help myself.
Thea: 4 – Bad, but not without merit / 6 – Good, with reservations It’s a schizophrenic rating for me because on the whole, the novel had serious problems. BUT there’s promise in there, and I’ll be reading the next book just to see where it goes.
Reading Next: Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson