Looks like rain. Matthew Kresal grabs his parasol...
Having been dancing on the edges of the steampunk genre for awhile, I recently started dipping into it properly. A good friend of mine recommended Soulless, and indeed the entirety of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, as a good starting place. Having now read this opening volume for the series, it isn't hard to see why it comes highly recommended, thanks to a wonderful combination of genres mixed together into one fantastic volume.
It was clear from the opening pages that was going to be both a fun and interesting read. Even more when one considers that it opens with Alexia Tarabotti, the soulless spinster daughter of a dead Italian father and a still living English mother, being forced to defend herself against a vampire with nothing more than her trusty brass parasol and a wooden hair stick. From there the novel becomes an unlikely mix of elements that shouldn't work together: steampunk, the supernatural, thriller, comedy of manners and romance.
A lot of that is down to the talent of author Gail Carriger. Carriger manages to keep all the elements in check as the opening pages can attest to. The steampunk elements are largely background scenery with dirigible and Victorian science playing roles both small and large in the plot while also being filled in as Carriger's engages in the occasional bit of well thought-out and well written world building. The supernatural elements come from the inclusion of both werewolves and vampires into Victorian society and the existence of the BUR (the Bureau of Unnatural Registry). It is those two elements that give the novel its central plot which sees a series of mysterious disappearances and attacks that lead Alexia deeper and deeper into the the supernatural spheres of influence. The novel's Victorian setting means that all of the social norms of the era are all in place, which leads to the aforementioned comedy of manners and the romance elements.
As I said above, it's a mix of elements that shouldn't work. Yet it's a mixture that not only does work but also works within multiple genres at the same time. Carriger keeps them all in check and wisely drips and drabs different elements at a time. The steampunk and supernatural elements provide much of the setting and context but it's the characters that really shine through as a rather unlikely romance unfolds alongside the thriller elements. All of them work in tandem and the result is an immensely enjoyable and readable piece of work.
What stands out for me more than anything else is the wit present throughout the novel. It's rare to find a work of fiction that makes one laugh out loud and Soulless managed to do just that in several places. The dialogue throughout is excellent, especially from Miss Tarabotti who it seems is always prepared to respond with a remark alongside her knack for getting herself in into trouble. Carriger also has a talent for creating great comedic moments and characters as well, especially when it comes to Alexia's mother who forever seems embarrassed by whatever her eldest daughter is up to. The comedy is a great tension reliever as well, which gives the novel the air of a classic thriller despite some of its more genre-centric trappings.
It's hard not to recommend Soulless then in the final analysis. It's a fun thriller with good characters, a good thriller plot and a wit that (as the cliché says) leaps off the page. It uses steampunk and the supernatural to build up its world, though both are critical to its success as well though for largely aesthetic reasons. For fans of any of the genres it touches upon, it is most certainly worth a read.
Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.