Thursday, October 13, 2011

‘Soulless’ by Gail Carriger, Book one of the Parasol Protectorate series.

Miss Tarabotti is a proper Victorian lady. The daughter of upper class, proper British society with all the refinement, expectations and proprieties that entails.
She’s also a spinster at the grand old age of 25, cursed by her Italian father to be too dark, have too bold a nose and far too bold a tongue to ever fit in proper, elegant high society. Miss Tarabotti is also Soulless. Soullessness is a trait that she inherited from her Italian father and like everything derived from him is considered without doubt to be a negative.

Unlike vampires and werewolves who have an overabundance of soul which grants them numerous special abilities, Miss Tarabotti’s lack of soul causes her touch to counteract their abilities, rendering them no more powerful than a normal human being. It should be noted that soulless people are far more rare than supernatural creatures, in fact she is the only one in Queen Victoria’s London and, at one time, were used to actively hunt down paranormal beings. 

And this, coupled with her highly inquisitive nature and wide reading, leads her to explore this paranormal steampunk world to discover the fate of several missing vampire and werewolves - as well as the origin of brand new vampires that seem to have come from nowhere.
I have to say before anything how much I love the language of this book. It really does set the scene for a paranormal steampunk and I’ve not read one before that had such a powerful sense of era. I would be remiss if I did not point out that if one is unfamiliar with the vocabulary of time period, it could make for difficult reading or at the very least plenty of trips to the dictionary. Though the writing itself is extremely descriptive, it never rises to the level of florid.

Miss Tarabotti was a very appealing character to me. She was very strong, assertive and had a lot of her own agency and complete unwillingness to be ruled - yet at the same time always fit her position and time period - and it’s actually hilarious (seriously, I laughed out loud) to have this extremely sassy, assertive, sarcastic and witty character express herself entirely in the formal, flowery language of the Victorian upper classes. She has a lot of agency and, for once, very little spunkiness. We had all of this power and pressure on her to conform, to be a proper, respectable lady (and a spinster) which she constantly resisted. She managed to assert more agency than we have seen in protagonists of modern urban fantasy - without ever losing her sense of time and place. It was a very elegant characterisation

I also have to praise this world as having unique elements, and not just because it so perfectly maintained a Victorian theme. The vampires and werewolves convert humans who have large amounts of soul - those without excess soul inevitably die in the transition (and there is a very high mortality rate). The vampires live in hives under a queen (which is rather problematic because women have a harder time becoming werewolves OR vampires - and the female vampires are the only ones to create offspring - again their worth as women lies in their ability to reproduce, even among vampires). Though it has to be said women are valued for their ability to reproduce they are still seen as competent leaders; the vampires are in fact led by a Queen and female werewolves are seen as highly desirable and valuable because of the rarity. Female werewolves are expected to make their sexual and or mating desires known publicly whereas proper Victorian ladies are expected to close their eyes and think of England.

One of the problematic aspect I found with the book were the dandies and Lord Akeldama. Clearly these men represented gay men of their time period (often clearly expressing attraction for each other, Akeldama and Lord Maccon. Keep in mind that at the time when this story was written homosexuality was a crime that faced severe punishment and yet these characters were incredibly obvious can camp to the point of caricature. This includes extensive knowledge of female dress, hairstyles and flailing everywhere. They were also renowned for gossiping, one could possibly take this in the sense that information means power, but in Soulless it worked simply to further feminise these men. In case you missed the point, the story even ended with gay wedding planners. Yes, I kid you not. It was absolutely ludicrous and in my mind made a mockery of what gay men in that time period faced simply to love one another. Even the language used to refer to them was repetitive and contained a lot of damaging code-words such as “mincing” and “limp wrists.” The only saving grace to the dandies that they were highly competent. The portrayal was simply too exaggerated, and the language used to refer to them too filled with code words to not be problematic

This is one of the better Paranormal Steampunks we’ve read, I don’t think we’ve ever read one with this sense of theme and place so firmly established. It also has one of the most intelligent, compelling and fun protagonists we’ve seen in any Urban Fantasy novel to date. Sookie and Elena need to take notes.
We most certainly will be reading the whole series