Soulless, the first volume in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, introduces us to an alternate version of Victorian England, in which the Empire has been built on an alliance with supernatural creatures, and runs on clockwork and steam. It also introduces us to Alexia Tarabotti, a half-Italian, bluestocking spinster with a secret.
Alexia becomes tangled up in a mystery when unregistered vampires start roaming the streets- and attacking young ladies at balls, and ruining perfectly good treacle tarts. When werewolves begin to go missing as well, Alexia joins reluctant forces with pack alpha Conall Maccon. And things get complicated, and rather steamy.
Aside from her spinsterhood and Italian heritage (shocking to English sensibilities, apparently), Alexia is also a very rare supernatural creature known as a “preternatural”- a being without a soul who’s touch can counteract paranormal abilities. Werewolves turn human, vampires lose their fangs, ghosts are exorcised- and they all return to aging mortality when she is in contact. It’s a fascinating take on the old ideas of what makes a supernatural creature work. In this case, it is soul; successfully transformed supernatural creatures have to have “excess” soul to survive their death.
Combining paranormal romance with steampunk trappings, it’s definitely a fluffy romp of a novel, but it was a lot of fun. Alexia, despite not entirely unfounded accusations of being a Mary Sue (which I actually don’t agree with, personally), is a wonderful female lead for a romance. I’m not usually much of a romance reader, and even less so with the paranormal variation, but she feels fresh. While her description belies her actual attractions, she is definitely more straightforward and, well, bossy than what I imagine the typical romance heroine to be. Not only is she not looking to be rescued, she’s even pretty happy to be consigned to spinsterhood- “put on the shelf”- since she was fifteen years old. She can’t stay on the shelf, obviously, but there is no desperation about her.
As far as the romance elements go- and they’re a pretty substantial part of the story- I was very happy to discover Carriger has very good instincts for dealing with the will-they-won’t-they timing. It was very obvious something was going to happen (or rather, WAS happening) between them, but she had the good grace not to drag it out through the whole plot, or to insert any unnecessary triangles, or senseless swooning. Alexia Tarabotti is no swooner.
The mystery/adventure plot was fun, though the telegraphing of the guilty party happened pretty early on. Overall, it was a rollicking adventure, with Alexia asserting her not inconsiderable authority and intelligence at every opportunity. The writing was sharp and witty, and the names were delightfully ridiculous. And even the sexy bits were gag-free; there were no creepy euphemisms, and a genuine chemistry between the leads.
Since reading Soulless, I have also read the second in the series, Changeless, and am working my way through the third volume currently. In fact, I bought the whole five book set on the strength of the first one. If that isn’t an endorsement, I don’t know what is.
(Cross-posted at Goodreads: Soulless)