Miss Alexia Tarabotti has many things against her. First, she is half-Italian and has the nose and skin to prove it. Second, she is a twenty-six year old spinster who must chaperone her silly younger half-sisters to balls where she would like to dance but where no one asks her to. Third, she is assertive, has an independent streak, and talks too much. Fouth, she is soulless.
Her soulless state is a secret from everyone but the paranormals – she is, after all, on the Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR) register. The vampires know of her, as do the werewolves and ghosts, but humans don’t even know the soulless, or “preternatural”, even exist.
So imagine her shock when a vampire in a very cheap shirt tries to bite her neck. Her soulless state neutralises him, but he keeps trying, so she is forced to use her trusty custom-made parasol to fend him off. When she accidentally kills him, the head of BUR, Lord Conall Maccon, is soon on the scene. Lord Maccon is also alpha of the Woolsey pack and he and Alexia have constantly butted heads ever since the hedgehog incident when they first met a few years ago.
It’s soon apparent that something’s not right with this dead vampire, aside from his embarrassing fang lisp. He didn’t belong to any of the London hives, even though he smells – according to Lord Maccon – of the Westminster hive. The cases of disappearing vampires and werewolves, and the appearance of new rogue vampires, increases, and Alexia herself seems to always be in the thick of things. A wax-faced man keeps trying to kidnap her, and Lord Maccon has set BUR paranormals to guard her. It might not be enough to save her life, but as long as she can get a cup of tea and some decent cake Alexia is up to the challenge of discovering what is really going on.
One of the fun things about genre fiction is how fluid the boundaries are. Soulless is such a rich mix of genres and sub-genres that trying to pinpoint them all makes you dizzy, and yet it works wonderfully. Marketed as Fantasy/Horror, I can tell the publisher was also a bit confused as to how to sell this one, because it could just as easily have ended up in the Romance section. The romance isn’t the main point of the novel, though, which is why it fits better in Fantasy – it does have a happy ending, romance-wise, though. The steampunk elements are slight and generally subtle, but important to the plot, and there’s definitely a touch of the gothic.
Set in a more mechanised London – roughly 1870s, going by the clues – with a history of vampires and werewolves incorporated into society dating back to Henry VIII (the real reason behind the schism with the Pope), it seamlessly integrates new and fictional history into Victorian society without losing any of the prim and proper-ness of the period (more on that in a bit).
The story is fun in more ways than its mish-mash of generic tropes. Possessed of an ironic humour with a slight tongue-in-cheek touch – aimed at the social mores of the day – Soulless has witty banter and intelligent observations. Alexia can be at turns annoying and loveable, but always sympathetic. Lord Maccon the werewolf has his moments of also being a bit of a twit, but there’s balance between wanting to laugh at him and respecting him that saves his character from being a buffoon. Besides, he’s a romantic hero.
Theories about the soul are integral to the story, including the idea that vampires and werewolves exist because of too much soul, rather than none at all. Alexia, having no soul, can revert a vampire to human just from a touch. Aside from Alexia’s own calmly reasoned opinions on the subject, the “truth” of the matter is very much open and quite fascinating to think about.
Soulless also breathes fresh life into the paranormal genre, blending more traditional vampires etc. with a few new twists. These aren’t ridiculously handsome, all-powerful specimens: if a man was bald in life, he’ll be bald as a vampire. The addition of the ultra-gay Lord Akeldama, who left his hive over disagreements about waistcoats, pokes irreverent fun at the hyper-heterosexuality of contemporary vampires.
There are a few slow points to the plot, but I often found the book hard to put down. The “bad guys” you can spot from the beginning, so it’s not much of a mystery; the attempts to abduct Alexia add danger and threat to the tone of the story, and it’s nicely dark and even macabre at points. It bothers me that, despite it’s very English setting, it’s littered with American spelling – absolutely jarring and completely weird, when they do that. Removes some of the authenticity of the setting and period, too.
The Victorian time period – which is lengthy (1837 – 1901) – has already produced great works in literature, such as that of Dickens, H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Contemporary genre fiction though has been slow to utilise it, especially Romance which possibly gets side-tracked by the illusion of gloom and prudish hide-the-ankles-of-the-table sexual repression (whereas they were just as horny and sexually active as any other period – and sex also took on what we would now see as gothic overtones, such as in the treatment of female hysteria by giving orgasms – the vibrator was invented around 1870 for doctors to give their upper class female patients orgasms).
It’s fantastic to see writers like Laura Lee Guhrke (in Romance) and now Gail Carriger, bring new life to what is arguably one of the most fascinating time periods in British history – fascinating for all the changes that occurred, for being the “beginning” of the modern period, for being a time of flux and inventions and new ideas and Freud and vivid contradictions and even the beginnings, late Victorian-era, of feminism. There is some Fantasy of the steampunk variety already set in this period, but not a lot. I certainly hope to see more genre fiction set in this period, but it will need some thorough research.