Yes, I have indeed read another romance novel with vampires. What is wrong with me?
As with The Rest Falls Away, Soulless has been on my to-read list for a while now. I almost bought the boxed set of all five books in this series at Christmas time, stopping myself on the grounds that I wouldn’t want to bring them back to England with me, so they’d gather dust at home until the summer. When I went to the Bury library last week to pick up some books I’d reserved, I noticed Soulless in a display of alternate history novels. Call it serendipity, but I took the opportunity to cross this one off my list.
I should clarify that, while this is both a romance and a vampire novel, it’s not a romance vampire novel. That is, the main character, Alexia, falls in love—but with a werewolf, not a vampire! However, vampires constitute a significant portion of this story as well.
Gail Carriger takes a lot of liberties in imagining an alternative Victorian England where the supernatural is not just real but openly acknowledged. Vampires and werewolves conform to rules of civility that allow them to coexist alongside humans. (Ghosts also exist but are less … ahem … substantial.) Humans can become supernatural beings if they have excess “soul”. Alexia Tarabotti is special because she is soulless, and therefore neutralizes supernatural beings with her touch. Vampires’ fangs retract, werewolves revert to human form, and the creatures become mortal. Carriger never really addresses how Alexia’s abilities affect ghosts, unfortunately.
Given that Alexia’s state as a soulless “preternatural” is one of the most unique and intriguing things about the book, one might have expected Carriger to explore its ramifications more creatively than she does. Everyone who is aware of Alexia’s status declares her important and significant, as evinced by the resolution of the book setting her up as a VIP. Unfortunately, soullnesses is sidelined in favour of the development of the romance subplots and the mystery of the missing supernaturals. This doesn’t ruin the book—I, for one, still found it quite enjoyable—but it’s a regrettable decision.
Alexia’s romance with Lord Maccon is far from the standard, more torrid fare that one might expect in a stereotypical romance novel. Carriger tends towards comedy in all respects, so the romance is a whirlwind of mixed signals and cross-cultural misunderstandings. Alexia’s difficulties fitting into society—owing to her Italian heritage and her forwardness and independent spirit relative to the ideal for women of that era—parallels Maccon’s own unease as a “barbarous” Scottish werewolf among the London ton. (That’s a brilliant word for the fashionable slice of society, by the way.) Similarly, Alexia’s indomitable “Alpha” spirit matches Maccon’s obstinacy. The two are, in short, perfect for each other.
Carriger pokes fun at all aspects of Victorian comportment, fashion, and attitudes towards women. In flippant tones she describes the social disaster of having a club for scientific gentleman next to Duke Snodgrass’ house, or reminds us that because of Alexia’s Italian heritage, her skin and hair are darker than is ideal. Alexia’s half-sisters and mother are more traditional in how they perform their gender roles—the overall effect almost comes across as a kind of softened version of Cinderella.
For all the light-hearted mockery, however, Carriger is more than content to echo the typical tropes of Victorian high society rather than subvert or interrogate them any further. As with Alexia’s soulless state, it seems there is much more that Carriger could have explored here, had she chosen to take the book in that direction. I love the light and frothy tone that Carriger maintains, but I’ve always been more impressed when an author can maintain such a tone and still engage in more substantial social commentary.
If what you desire is an entertaining mixture of Victorian England, werewolves and vampires, and romance, then Soulless has all of that. It has a snappy, engaging plot—although the villain isn’t necessarily that interesting or imposing—and Carriger carefully introduces nuanced differences between Alexia’s world and ours as a result of the existence of supernatural and preternatural beings.
I’m always intrigued when books receive such a diverse spread of ratings and reviews from my friends on Goodreads. Some of my friends loved Soulless while others hated it. At the risk of seeming tepid, I have to say that I’m somewhere in the middle. Soulless is a lot of fun, but it also has its nuisance moments. I always wanted to keep on reading and to discover what would happen next—but there were times when I had to roll my eyes at the campiness of the whole thing. There is a slight duality of tension within the book, which cannot decide exactly what type of book it wants to be.
I shall definitely carry on with the Parasol Protectorate series, though I’m rethinking that urge to buy the boxed set.