Review: Soulless by Gail Carriger

soulless by gina carriger Review: Soulless by Gail Carriger

Gail Carriger's debut novel Soulless has been on my reading radar (admittedly my reading radar could put most current military technology to shame) for some time now, and I must admit to being rather chuffed at arriving home to find that the lovely Hachette Australia had sent me a copy to review. I have rather a thing for parasols, tongue-in-cheek pomposity, and Victorian-era mysteries, and Soulless has all of the above.

Her twenty-fifth birthday having recently slipped by, Alexia Tarabotti is a wizened spinster with little to offer other than her ability to make her step-sisters look dazzlingly attractive by comparison. In addition to her frightful age, she also boasts alarmingly swarthy skin, a Roman nose, and an Italian surname, all of which allow her to move about scarcely noticed by the upper-middle-class circles in which she likes to move. Of perhaps, would allow this had she not a propensity towards being not only learned, but rather vocal about it, and a similarly difficult-to-ignore habit of thwacking people with her parasol.

It is this parasol-thwacking business that first brings Alexia to the notice of the BUR, or the Bureau of Unnatural Registry. You see, Alexia, who in addition to being rather plain looking, also suffers from the condition of being soulless, a small inconvenience that means that she is unable to properly appreciate fashion, and also that she is able to render defenceless any of the supernatural beings roaming about Victorian London. Hiding away from a the crowd at some sort of pretentious social gathering while she awaits a plate of cucumber sandwiches, Alexia is accosted by a strangely disoriented vampire who knows nothing of the appropriate social norms of vampirism in this odd alternative London, and she shows him exactly who's boss (Well, as best as a woman can in Victorian London). The BUR, headed by Scottish werewolf Lord Maccon, is ushered in to try to determine the origins of this vampire, whom no hive queen will admit to having brought into the world. It turns out, however, that this vampire is one of many who have appeared in such a manner, and in addition to these appearances, there are also issues with similarly baffling disappearances. Alexia, however, not one to stay out of trouble, soon finds herself being courted by an American scientist with a penchant for souls, and being chased after by a golem-like wax-faced man who has the subtle determination of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Terminator.

At first glance, Soulless seems as though it should be a brilliant and cracking read, and for the first third or so of the book it is. Carriger has a vivid imagination, and her vision of an alternate Victorian London is richly imagined. However after an initially brilliant maiden voyage, the book seems to flail at the hands of an icebergian issue of trying to be everything all at once. Carriger tries to bring in myriad plot elements and genres, and the book suffers a bit of an identity crisis as a result as it tries to cohere the various requirements of a comedy of manners, a cozy mystery, a regency romance, and an urban fantasy. For this reason, the plot never comes across as entirely satisfying: despite a fabulous and well-drawn setting, the plot feels quite slight and low-stakes (pardon the pun).

In addition to this, the characterisation of some of the cast becomes unsufferable, as everyone is superlative in terms of however it is they have been described. While Carriger clearly intends for there to be some degree of caricature evident, ultimately the reader struggles to identify with the characters. I also found the constant reference to Alexia's apparent physical deformity as a result of her Italian background and her spinster status to be rather tiresome and frustrating after a while, and while her soulless nature was also similarly expounded upon with verbose glee, there didn't really seem to be any implications to her not having a soul (other than her inability to admire fashion in the proper manner), which disappointed me somewhat. I was also a little disappointed with how quickly the tension between Maccon and Alexia was resolved'a situation that had the potential to be great fun was done away with before it really had any opportunity to escalate.

However for these faults, Soulless is a tremendously fun read, and those who are disposed to the paranormal romance genre will likely find a lot here to enjoy. Carriger's world is nicely drawn with a believable back story and a gutsy heroine, and these alone are enough to make the book worth picking up. I'll look forward to reading the others in the series.

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