Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: Soulless, book one of the Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger (Orbit, 2009)

When I first laid hands on Gail Carriger’s Soulless (Orbit, 2009), I began to wonder if the book had been written specifically to irritate me.

1. To start out, the novel is urban fantasy. Already we’re on bad terms.

2. Also, there are vampires.

3. Too, werewolves.

4. And romance!

5. In case that’s not enough, Carriger mixes in a Victorian setting and a hint of steampunk. Neither of these inherently annoy me, but combined with items 1-4:

6. The novel is heavily weighted down by trendy genre elements.* In my experience, this usually leads to books that are poorly constructed, badly integrated, and the literary equivalent of a chess club stereotype wearing star-shaped sunglasses – trying much too hard to be cool.**

Soulless should be like combining salmon and chocolate while I, in this metaphor, am an ichthyophobe with no sweet tooth. However, it appears that skilled chefs can pair salmon and chocolate. And sometimes a novel that’s full of everything wrong can go terribly, tragically right.

Soulless is the first book of the Parasol Protectorate, with the next book, Changeless, due from Orbit on March 30, 2010. The novel begins when a young Victorian woman, Alexia Tarabotti, finds herself alone in a library with a vampire. For any other unmarried miss, this situation would be frightening. However, Alexia has no soul which means that vampires can’t eat her and, in fact, her touch temporarily turns supernatural creatures into humans.

There are three types of supernatural creatures in Carriger’s universe: werewolves, vampires and ghosts. Werewolves come in packs, and vampires come in hives, but somehow this vampire doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. Alexia gets caught up with the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, or BUR, in helping to investigate this strange appearance as well as a number of strangely coincidental disappearances.

In the interview at the back of the book, Carriger reports having asked herself, “if immortals were mucking about, wouldn’t they have been mucking about for a very long time?” She considers the cultural implications of supernatural interference: “Those absurd Victorian manners and ridiculous fashions were obviously dictated by vampires. And, without a doubt, the British army regimental system functioned on werewolf pack dynamics… [and then I] realized that if Victorians were studying vampires and werewolves (which they would do, if they knew about them)… technology would have evolved differently. Enter a sprinkling of steampunk…” (p. 364)

In my opinion, most traditional urban fantasy fails because it doesn’t consider the long-term, global ramifications of its conceits. This isn’t helped by the fact that a great deal of urban fantasy poses a secret underworld filled with werewolves and vampires (or fairies and elves) who covertly affect the real world. Small-scale stories revolving around this conceit can be fine, but secrets are difficult to keep, and many stories pose so many supernatural events of such import that it strains credibility to believe that magic could remain a secret. Buffy – to take an at-hand example – made a joke of it. But non-humorous texts are out of luck if they want us to believe that people die every night from vampire bites and yet no one ever notices.

Carriger’s world is one in which vampires and werewolves are fully integrated. They interact with and affect politics and society, and in turn are affected by them. For instance, there’s a post specifically designated for a werewolf to advise the Queen, but simultaneously the alpha werewolf is constrained by high society mores.

Soulless also benefits from the fact that Carriger doesn’t seem to have approached the elements of her book as disparate. As she says, Victorians investigating magic lends itself to steampunk; one genre element follows from another, creating the sense of a fully integrated world.

The novel’s action-oriented main plot takes place against a Jane-Austen-like background. Alexia, the product of her mother’s first marriage to a – gasp – Italian, is a spinster with a number of unflattering traits, such as her blunt speech and tan complexion, all of which make it clear she’ll never find a proper English husband. Nevertheless, she falls in love with one of the country’s most eligible bachelors, the werewolf alpha Lord Maccon.

No, wait. She doesn’t fall in love with him. She can’t stand him. No, I’m sorry. I mean, he can’t stand her. Wait. He’s in love with her – that’s it. It’s just that he’s strong and manly, but also messy and uncivilized. While she’s proud and intractable, but also busty and tenacious. Wait, are we reading Pride and Prejudice with Werewolves?

Soulless’s treatment of romance in its early chapters is the novel’s only major misstep. The text improves once Lord Maccon and Alexia acknowledge their romantic feelings – although there is one awkward, late-chapter sex scene that occurs in the middle of an action sequence, which could have been dramatically shortened while still serving its purpose as a release valve for romance and humor. But the early romantic sallies are winceably cliché. As soon as a male character gazes upon the heroine with a passage like--

Miss Tarabotti might examine her face in the mirror each morning with a large degree of censure, but there was nothing at all wrong with her figure. He would have to have had far less soul and a good fewer urges not to notice that appetizing fact. Of course, she always went and spoiled the appeal by opening her mouth. In his humble experience, the world had yet to produce a more vexingly verbose female. (p. 8-9)

--we readers know where we’re headed. We don’t need tingling near her abdomen or stirring he can’t explain, interspersed with fury! at his lack of manners and yet--! to guide us along the way. Carriger so facilely avoids other clichés that it’s a shame this one mars the text.

Overall, though, the Austen elements are charming. Carriger’s Victorian voice is sharp and funny. Witty observations provide a plethora of humorous clashes between action sequences and rigid etiquette. The descriptions of Victorian fashion are very nice for those readers with a weakness for bustles and lace, and I suspect I’m not the only one since the book is marketed with a Victorian dress-up doll flash game.

If there’s one weakness the Victorian voice lends itself to, it’s the underdevelopment of Alexia’s mother, step-father and sisters, who play the compliant foils for unconventional Alexia. Their insipidness is fine at the beginning of the book, but grows less convincing as their roles increase near the end. Still, this is a small complaint and easily remedied. Hopefully Carriger will toss them a few lines of character development in one of the sequels.

Other characters are created quite well. Alexia, for instance, is a fun and well-portrayed heroine, full of vigor and flaws. She, her friend Ivy, and their friendship are memorably captured in a few sentences: “Ivy Hisselpenny was the unfortunate victim of circumstances that dictated she be only-just-pretty, only-just-wealthy, and possessed of a terrible propensity for wearing extremely silly hats. This last being the facet of Ivy’s character that Alexia found most difficult to bear.” (p. 33) Lord Maccon and his assistant, Professor Lydell, are good characters as well, although Lord Maccon is at times brushed in with slightly-too-broad romantic strokes and could use a little more development within his archetype. The best character is the vampire Lord Akeldama, an outrageous gossip-monger with a penchant for gaudy attire whose underlying intelligence and immortal weariness are deftly revealed as the novel progresses.

In the end, Soulless is not a profound novel. It imparts no revelations about the human experience. I don’t expect it will change anyone’s life or that I’ll remember the plot intricacies in ten years. But it was a fun, adventurous romp that diverted me for a few hours. I might even read it a second time. I will certainly pick up book two of the Parasol Protectorate and I look forward to meeting Alexia Tarabotti again in 2010.


*It seems possible that Carriger began writing with the intent of forecasting what tropes would be popular a few years down the line. If this is the case, kudos to her for guessing correctly.

**It should go without saying that any of these things can be done well. It’s just that while 90% of everything is crap, I find these tropes to suffer from even worse odds. Nevertheless, here are some successful examples: Octavia Butler’s Fledgling (vampire), N. K. Jemisin’s “Red Riding Hood’s Child” (werewolf), Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “The Ant King: A California Fairy Tale” (urban fantasy), and Paula Guran’s anthologies of romantic fantasy which contain Coates’s “Magic in a Certain Slant of Light,” Parks’s “Moon Viewing at Shijo Bridge,” and Copley-Woods’s “Desires of Houses” (romance). Michael Swanwick is famous for combining disparate genre elements with strength and grace, and I was recently impressed with new writer Tina Connolly’s “Moon at the Starry Diner” for successfully condensing an epic plotline and several incompatible tropes into a short story.


Foxessa said...

You have the power of persuasion. I shall check it out, though, as you so clearly describe, it contains everything that makes this reader foolish with boredom.

Love, c.

X.Trapnel said...

Oooh. Sounds delightful. Thanks!