[CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS]
Soulless by Gail Carriger fearlessly spans many genres. The book doesn't take itself too seriously, and because of this it is quite a fun read. There are many dark and solemn supernatural or steampunk tales out there. The humour in Soulless is quite refreshing in comparison. However, I fear that it's array of genres ultimately dilutes this book.
Blurb from Amazon.co.uk:
Alexia Tarabotti is labouring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she's a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette. Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire - and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate. With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London's high society? Or will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart? SOULLESS is a comedy of manners set in Victorian London: full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking.
At first, I found the main character, Alexia, slightly annoying. Unused to reading humour, it took me a while to relax into the tone of the book. Alexia first appeared as prissy, but as I began to see the world she lived in, and as I began to uncover more about her character, I started to warm to her. By the end of the novel, though, she had began to irk me a little again.
The book deals with Victorian high society. And to be honest, it's this kind of corset-wearing, tea-drinking, party-going superficial pointlessness that I find least appealing about this era in history. I'm really not bothered about the colour and trim of a dress, or how many parasols or hats one person can own... This isn't a criticism of the writing, but I think it all adds to the slightly irritating prudishness of the book. One reviewer on Amazon said they found the writing 'smug', and I think some people might well read it that way, mostly because of the high society that the book deals with, blended with the richly sarcastic tone. Some may view this as a flaw, but others I'm sure will view it as a strength. This aspect of the novel, I feel, is very much down to personal preference.
This aside, my favourite characters by far were the werewolves. In Carriger's world, supernaturals are integrated into society, and are even part of the government. Lord Maccon (alpha werewolf and head of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry) is gruff and rude; his beta Professor Lyall is intelligent, loyal and well respected. I thought both their characters were very well painted.
Lord Maccon quickly becomes the story's main love interest, and Carriger has perfected the art of teasing us with this sub-plot, and doesn't give us what we want until the very end - as it should be with all good love stories. By the end of the novel, however, the story did start to boarder on Mills and Boons. The slightly more graphic Epilogue cheapened the eroticism and romance that was so well executed throughout the rest of the book.
The steampunk elements of this book seemed fairly tacked-on. In one of the early chapters, Alexia and her even more annoying friend Ivy are taking a walk. They come across some airships tethered in Hyde Park. Alexia makes some fleeting comments about how amazing they are, and then they never crop up again.
Steampunk comes more into play at the end of the novel, when were are faced with revolutionary and horrific cog-filled torture machines. These were fascinating, yet their darkness contrasted almost unnaturally with the light-hearted tone of the rest of the book.
An automaton also becomes integral to the plot. Carriger describes this mechanical man with appropriate horror (the unyielding strength, the dead skin, the carved forehead...). The mystery around this character really drives the novel forward, but once we find out what it is, so much suspense is lost, and from that point, the automaton loses much of its original character and falls very much into the background. The revelation about the carving in its forehead was a disappointment to me, too. The word was 'VIXI' and I thought it would represent Roman numerals, perhaps suggesting there are many more of these monsters, but instead it turns out it is part of some magic spell, and all that is needed to defeat the automaton is essentially a face wash.
In all, the book is well structured and the characters are rich. Though the main themes have been done many times before, Carriger brings a freshness to them with some original thought. The amalgamation of genres makes this a difficult book to place in the market, and I feel the light tone and the supernatural romance elements are the strongest. The steampunk elements are mostly aesthetic, and I feel that Carriger is more enchanted by high society Victorian England mixed with supernatural creatures than anything more technological.
Rating: **1/2 (Two and a half stars out of five)