Monday, April 30, 2012

Soulless by Gail Carriger

My Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.30 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.94 / 5.00

Alexia Tarabotti is a constant source of embarrassment and disappointment to her mother. Not only did she inherit her Italian father’s dark hair and skin, with it’s propensity to tan, but she is also bookish, forward and not at all lady-like: it is enough to make poor Mrs Loontwill faint quite away. Fortunately, Alexia’s half-sisters, Felicity and Evylin, are the perfect of embodiment of respectable English girlhood: blond, fair-of-skin and empty-of-head. Adding to her strangeness is the fact that Alexia has no soul, a very rare affliction inherited from the long-dead Mr Tarabotti. Those humans gifted with an overabundance of soul are candidates for being turned into vampires or werewolves, and so living greatly extended lives, while others are held close to their bodies after death and become ghosts. All three types of supernatural live openly in human society and are regulated by Her Majesty’s Bureau of Unnatural Registry. Soulless preternaturals, such as Alexia, have the ability to negate the abilities of supernaturals, returning vampires and werewolves to their original human state and exorcising ghosts, all with a simple touch; and so we start our story . . .

Alexia is attending a terribly dull ball and has retreated to the library to enjoy some treacle tart in peace, when she is accosted by an impudent vampire. Not only does he not introduce himself, displaying the worst manners imaginable, but then he attempts to bite her without first asking for permission. He is totally confused by his inability to actually accomplish the biting, as he has never heard of a preternatural and cannot understand why his fangs keep disappearing whenever he touches her. When reasoning proves to be futile she makes use of her wooden hairpin and trusty parasol to stake the ruffian. This incident brings Alexia into conflict with the unforgivably Scottish Lord Maccon, head of the BUR and Alpha of the London werewolves. She relays her surprise that the vampire was unaware of her nature, as the few new vampires created by the local hives are always well educated about preternaturals, or that he should be allowed about town in such awfully cheap clothing.

As the number of ill-educated, new vampires appearing in London increases, Alexia finds that everyone suspects her of masterminding the phenomenon. Whilst trying not to give her mother cause to have an attack of the vapors, she seeks advice from an independent vampire, the outrageously extravagant Lord Akeldama, who uses his group of devilishly handsome young men to collect all the gossip and intrigue from around town. Unfortunately, he does not know who is responsible, and she is repeatedly ordered to desist by Lord Maccon, but Alexia has never been the type to take advice, even if it is delivered by a powerful werewolf who is in turns angry and physically affectionate. While she cannot quite accept that Lord Maccon might be interested in her as a woman, Alexia continues to make enquiries as she seeks to uncover the true nature of these new vampires. 

I have to admit that I spent a great deal of time chuckling whilst I read this book. The name of the series that it begins, The Parasol Protectorate, is indicative of the humor that fills the writing. The author’s turn of phrase is delightfully sharp, although it captures the overly wordy style of writing of the period, which is Victorian. Unlike Sarah at Bookworm Blues, who found this problematic, I found it drew me into the world very successfully. Of course, I am British myself, so I may find it easier to associate myself with an Alexia who is not only witty but also has a cutting, sarcastic tone.
“How ghastly for her,” said Alexia, driven beyond endurance into comment. “People actually thinking, with their brains, and right next door. Oh the travesty of it all.”

Alexia is a fearless heroine who fights her own battles: and in a full skirt and corset with a bushel and hat to contend with. She knows that she is not really a part of the High Society that the rest of her family inhabits, but she genuinely doesn’t care and is unashamed of her differences. So, in many ways, she seems like a very modern woman. However, she is limited by some of the mores and expectations of her time and never really pushes the bubble so far that she feels out of place in the Victorian period. In many ways she reminded me of Lauren, the heroine in Mary Ballogh’s A Summer to Remember, that I read at about the same time. It is so nice to have a period character who shows some backbone, but is not too anachronistic.

All the other main characters are very well drawn. Lord Maccon is a bad-tempered bear of a man, who seems to have great difficulty behaving in an acceptable way, and relies upon his Beta, the diminutive Professor Lyall, to deal with the niceties of most situations. Alexia tries to escape her air-headed, fashion and marriage obsessed mother and sisters as much as possible. She can always depend upon Miss Ivy Hisselpenny to join her for a turn around the park and a good gossip, although Ivy’s totally disastrous taste in hats is a major flaw that Alexia has learnt to tolerate. Her other great confidant, Lord Akeldama, is a wonderfully affected character who constantly seems to speak in italics and is so flamboyantly gay that he is almost universally despised by everyone else that she knows, but she loves him dearly, mainly because he seems to genuinely like her for who she is. These are fun people, and I can imagine that they would be very entertaining to spend time with.

The story moves along fairly well, though the pace is a little uneven, but the writing itself is enjoyable enough to overcome this. The world is well drawn, with lots of detail and different enough from historical Victorian London to show a little of the Steampunk aspects that become more prominent in the second book in the series. The Romance elements were handled with an air of confusion, but I felt that this conveyed Alexia’s own reactions to Lord Maccon’s advances. There is a great deal of sexual tension between the two, with increasingly urgent sessions of fumbling, but the relationship proceeds in a stop-start fashion, as they both fight to control their urges. Kristen at Fantasy Cafe found this emphasis on physicality a little boring, but I felt this demonstrated both his animal instincts and her ‘soulless’ lack of romantic sensibilities.

The Book Smugglers found Alexia to be extremely similar to Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody and they also had other criticisms, which were shared by several reviewers on Goodreads that were ambivalent or negative about the book. I can’t comment on the similarity to Peter’s books, but many of the negativity seems to be due to the genre labels used to market the title and the hype associated with its promotion. I can understand how disappointing it can be when you start a book expecting one thing and getting something entirely different. I have also had the experience of reading a famously popular book that ‘everyone’ has raved about, only to wonder if I am reading the same thing that they did . . . ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ by Stieg Larsson springs to mind instantly. All I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed my journey through Alexia’s world: I have already read the second book in the series, ‘Changeless’, and the third, ‘Blameless’ is sitting on my coffee table as I type. 


  1. Great review. I adore books in this time period, especially when authors recreate the language well. I thought the paranormal element was a fun twist with Victorian etiquette, and Alexia was endearing.

  2. Ms Carriger does have a wonderful voice, doesn't she? I love how Alexia uses the nicety of manners even in the most disturbing of situations.

  3. Domesticated GalMay 1, 2012 at 7:34 PM

    You absolutely hit it on the nail. It was a perfect escapism read, and a great example of the Steam Punk genre that is emerging. I personally loved it enough to read all 4 books that were out at the time - her wit keeps the series fresh despite some classic formulaic elements from book to book.

  4. I liked that the Steampunk elements were not pushed to the foreground, but were simply there as part of the world. I am waiting for book 4 to make its way back to the library . . .


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