Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ever wonder why Victorian England was pale and wore high collars?

Steampunk has gotten popular.  Very popular.  You can’t throw a rock at a genre convention without hitting someone with goggles on.  But the best authors add in a bit of steampunk as background, without drawing too much attention to it.  Same goes for vampires, werewolves...there’s a lot of fiction shticks that get old fast.  But some authors manage.  Gail Carriger seems to have that down pat with her debut novel Soulless.

Main character Alexia Tarabotti just doesn’t seem to fit in with her family.  First off, she’s the offspring of her mother’s first marriage, to an Italian.  So she’s just a little too dark, a little too curvy, and a little to well-endowed in the nasal area to fit in to Victorian norms.  Because of this, her mother decided not to bother throwing her a coming-out and a season in London, and she’s been declared a spinster since the ripe old age of 13.  

Oh, and she doesn’t have a soul.

In this universe, vampires, werewolves and ghosts are successfully made because they have an abundance of soul.  For this reason, they tend to be artists, and poets, and (gasp!) actors.  To balance this out, of course, there must be some unfortunates who are born without any soul at all.  Miss Tarabotti would be one of these people.  In less enlightened times (also referred to as the Dark Ages), these soulless people, usually men, were used as vampire and werewolf hunters.  Their soulless state negates vampirism or lycanthropy.  In vampires, this takes away their supernatural strength, fangs, and sensitivity to sunlight.  In werewolves, this negates their strength and their change to wolf form at the full moon.  But then the Renaissance happened, supernaturals were given citizenship and rights, and people are no longer able to just kill them on sight.  

(As an interesting aside, which I wish would be followed up on, the people who left England for America left because they believed that vampires and werewolves should still be hunted down and killed.)

The Victorian setting is explored very nicely, but in passing, as it should.  Generally, a character that belongs in a setting would not be expounding on details that would be strange to the reader, but normal to her.  We do get bits of it, though, as she complains about society’s obsession with vampire-pale skin, Roman purge buckets (because, of course, vampires don’t need to eat, but can for the flavor), and the two houses of Parliament (Day Court and Night Court, of course.)

There are also little bits to please the Steampunk audience.  Lord Maccon’s assistant, well, Beta, since he’s a werewolf, has a pair of magnifying ‘glassicals’ that beg to be cosplayed.  There’s also an abundance of dirigibles to be seen.  It’s not dwelled on, though, which is how it should be.

And, like any vampire novel, there’s an aspect of romance in it.  But, being Victorian, it’s completely without smut.  Amazing!  And quite fun.  Not every book needs pages and pages of bedroom scenes.

Admittedly, the book doesn’t start out too great.  When being attacked by a vampire, Alexia seems to be more concerned with the treacle tart that she doesn’t get to eat and her crumpled skirts than her near brush with death.  Also, Miss Hisselpenny, Alexia’s best friend, drives both Alexia and the reader mad obsessing about her hats and pretending to faint.  As the story progresses, though, the reader starts to see the humor in it, though, and it really does begin to be charming.  I suppose that Victorian spinsters probably don’t have terribly much else to concern themselves with than fashion and parties.  Lord Akeldama, though, is amusing from the start.

So it’s vampires without smut, steampunk without being distracting, and funny without being ludicrous.  And that’s a great combination.

Highs;  Appropriate mixture of period items and technology, quirky side-characters

Lows:  Author takes a while to find her voice

Verdict:  A fun fluff piece that has a lot of promise for the rest of the series

Further Reading:  Changeless, Boneshaker

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