by Gail Carriger
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?
Gail Carriger's one of those authors who's been on my TBR for quite a few years now. I've read very few fantasy of manners books, but considering I love historical fiction, and particularly subgenres such as historical fantasy and historical magical realism, I'd certainly like to read more of them, especially now having read Soulless.
Soulless is set in an alternate Victorian London where vampires, werewolves and ghosts are known and integrated into society. Vampires keep to their hives and werewolves to their packs, and there are certain rules in place to ensure that everyone lives together as harmoniously as they possibly can given the circumstances. Our protagonist, Alexia Tarabotti, is a spinster who only really attends parties for the food (I'm the same, to be honest) and also happens to have no soul. This isn't exactly common, in fact it's so rare even her own family don't know about it, but in this world she can use it to her advantage, for if she touches someone supernatural they revert to a human state for however long she happens to be touching them, making it practically impossible for supernatural creatures to attack her. And even when they try she has her trusty parasol to bat them off with.
Friends with a flamboyant vampire and frustrated with a particularly handsome werewolf, Alexia is no stranger to the supernatural. At the beginning of Soulless she's attacked by a vampire who, oddly, doesn't appear to know what she is; those born without souls used to hunt vampires, and so any new vampires are warned of their existence. Throughout the country werewolves and vampires are going missing, and when an eerie figure with a horrid grin begins pursuing Alexia she realises whoever's taking the supernatural creatures is after her too, and she's determined to find out why.
From the beginning Soulless is fun and fast-paced. It's not exactly heavy on the action, as a fantasy of manners book much of the conflict is conveyed through witty dialogue and social encounters rather than fist fights or shoot outs in the middle of the street, but I was never bored. In fact I flew through this, and would have finished it much faster than I did if I hadn't left it at work over the weekend. That was frustrating.
Alexia's a very entertaining heroine. Historical fiction is full of women, usually spinsters, who are 'ahead of their time' to the point where they can become interchangeable, but in a way it's almost as though Carriger is aware that Alexia is something of a trope, and because of that self-awareness it works. She's also not the usual spinster who's declared the 19th century equivalent of 'I don't need no man', but a woman who's lucky enough to come from a fairly wealthy family which means she doesn't need to get married to advance her family's position in society or bring in extra money. She's comfortable as she is, so she stays as she is.
Then we have Lord Conall Maccon, the Scottish werewolf who plays the part of our love interest in this book. I have to be honest, I liked him a lot. Call me shallow but I have a thing for older men in fiction, particularly of the gruff variety. Moody and self-pitying I don't like, but a man who knows how to take control while also showing women respect? Yes. Yes please.
The book is populated by a colourful cast of other characters, from Alexia's Mrs. Bennet-esque mother to her loyal butler Floote, and altogether they're such fun to read. That's the best word I can think of to describe this book: fun.
Soulless isn't to be taken too seriously. Amidst all the flirting and tea there are moments where Carriger uses the supernatural as a way to comment on society, on the way we treat people we view as 'other', and while it's nothing ground-breakingly new I still appreciated it being there, but if you're looking for a serious historical fantasy I don't think Soulless is what you're looking for. At times it borders on the silly - particularly during the times when the romance overtakes the plot - but it's harmless and, there's that word again, fun.
I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of this series, and checking out more of Carriger's work.