Soulless – an Alexia Tarabotti novel

Take Jane Austen, transplant her to steampunk Victorian London and throw some vampires and werewolves into the high society setting and you’ve got the world of Soulless, the first book in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, featuring Alexia Tarabotti as the strong-willed female protagonist

Soulpunk

Miss Alexia Tarabotti has no soul. In a London where soulful vampires and werewolves are the cool kids in the class, with many fine men and women aspiring to immortality, having no soul is mostly a minor inconvenience for Alexia. What is more of an inconvenience is that she has with two beautiful half-sisters from her mother’s second marriage, which leaves Alexia as the weird spinster sister, who has even inherited a slightly tan skin from her Italian father. Alexia, however, is nothing if not practical, and is coping admirably with her fate.
Her life takes a surprising turn, however, when miss Tarabotti accidentally kills a shockingly ill informed vampire trying to feed from her. This turn of events brings Lord Maccon, Her Majesty’s chief supernatural law enforcement officer back into Alexia. Lord Maccon is a distressingly uncouth fellow, being a Scotsman, and a werewolf alpha to boot, and he and Alexia have no desire to spend more time than necessary in each other’s company. Unfortunately, Lord Maccon is also in possession of a powerful animal magnetism and a preference for women with southern complexion and wide hips. And of course, the dead vampire is not the only peculiar thing to happen to miss Tarabotti, necessitating more encounters with the Scottish Lord.

Austenpunk

The genre is quite unequivocally steampunk. Dirigibles rule the skies, weird aetheric devices are state-of-the-art, and weird pseudo-scientific theories on the origins of vampires and werewolves abound.

The Steampunk genre is a curious fish. In most iterations, it is a genre that says: what would Victorian times be like if the laws of physics were radically different, allowing for very different, much flashier science, with the resulting very different social dynamics. At a glance, it might seem like a kind of historical science fiction, but that’s not really where it’s at. It’s usually more proper to call it a kind of Science Fantasy, a genre that covers fantasy stories with technology playing a significant part. Star Wars is of course the prime example of this, with its fairytale setting and it’s magic – sorry, force – wielding knights.

The Parasol Protectorate doesn’t go to those kinds of extremes. In many ways, it keeps the weirdness relatively low. The supernatural and the weird science is there, but it never takes over completely. There’s still room for the other part of this weird hybrid creature, stitched together in the literary lab of Dr. Calliger: namely Austenesque society comedy/drama. Particularly the first parts of the book are very much in the veins of Jane Austen, though with a comedic touch and a modern view of sexuality. The latter is particularly revealed as the book goes on, and Miss Alexia finds herself in some scenes that Austen would never have presumed to engage in, involving naked men and (gasp) physical intimacy!
The sexuality certainly has its place in the book. One of the interesting points in the book is the clash between repressed Victorian society and the more basic instincts of the supernatural characters. I would, however, question the gratuity of it. While this reader enjoyed the description of Alexia’s almost scientific exploration of the art of kissing, certain scenes towards the end of the book add little to the story, and might unkindly be speculated to be the author’s secret erotic fantasies in literary form. And while the Austenian tone works well to underline Alexia’s social hardships, the end of the book is drawn long by purely social scenes that seem to add little development to the story. The last parts of the book might easily have been cut short by several pages without losing any plot development. A shame, because the pacing of the book up until that point had been very good.

Punk Deluxe

The book in general is very good. It is a light and easy read, and it successfully balances the Austenesque with steampunk so that societal intriguing can take over when supernatural action runs out of steam – and vice versa. The characters are very well portrayed, particularly the main characters, and very few are portrayed in an entirely one-sided manner. Unfortunately, the villains fall in the latter category, being treated to very little “screen” time, being added almost as a pretext towards the end of the book. Hopefully, this will be different in the following instalments of the series.
And so, I fully recommend Soulless. It’s not a perfect book, but it is witty, entertaining and fresh, without being too much of any. It’s even a book I might recommend to some non-steampunk friends as a good book regardless of the fantastic elements.

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