Since Gail Carriger is a new discovery to me, and her Parasol Protectorate series is my introduction to the steampunk variation of alternate history fiction, I am happy to begin my online review career with an assessment of her work.
The series kicks off in high style with Soulless, a tale of Alexia Tarabotti’s young life in a late-1800s London not too far off from what we know from any other historical romance, with the key difference that Vampires and Werewolves are “out”. In fact, Carriger’s thesis is that the rise of the British Imperium doesn’t make sense without some supernatural intervention, given the small size of that nation.
The story is immediately captivating, both for its droll turn of phrase, and for its underlying metaphor: In this version of our world, there are people with an excess of soul who are eligible to be turned into supernatural beings (naturally enough, artists and actors and others typically seen as being easily overwrought); and then there’s Alexia, who has no soul. Not because she’s evil, but because some etheric component is missing in her make-up. As the story unwinds, there are many potential theories about whether this is an entirely genetic flaw, but ultimately, the reader, like Alexia, comes to the conclusion that the cause doesn’t matter as much as avoiding unnecessary attention. Unfortunately for Alexia’s peace of mind, she has a genius for getting herself involved in crazy circumstances, including, eventually being courted by the alpha werewolf, Lord Conall Maccon.
I’ve always been a fan of historical fiction for what I can learn about bygone eras. In this case, given the speculative elements added to a decidedly Victorian setting, the author is able to highlight the soul leitmotif in such a way as to make the reader wonder whether there’s any chance there could be more than a grain of truth to it. Certainly, I was left wondering whether I would want too much or too little for myself.
Alexia’s path evolves naturally, though by the end of the book I was a little tired of being reminded, yet again, that she’s half-Italian and at the fringes of acceptability to her society. For all that repetition, though, the story maintained its fast pace through to the end, and I had to immediately grab the second in the installation.
I would not hesitate to recommend this to anyone who’s inclined to historical fiction, werewolf/vampire fantasy, or romance. Since I’ve never read a steampunk genre book before, though, I couldn’t say whether this is a representative sample–though I will say it has set my standard for the style. Definite thumbs-up.