Have you ever wondered why the tiny island of Great Britain was able to colonize vast swaths of the known world? Like any good history major I could give you many long and boring explanations for the existence of Britain’s nineteenth-century colonial empire. But Gail Carriger’s answer is much more fun: Britain rose to global power by giving citizenship and rights to werewolves and vampires, who naturally lent their powers to the Crown in return.
Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series follows the adventures of Alexia Tarrabotti, a London spinster with a fondness for treacle tarts and weaponized parasols. Alexia is a “preternatural” — someone without a soul — whose touch can negate the supernatural abilities of both vampires and werewolves.
At the beginning of Soulless, Miss Tarrabotti is enduring an extremely dull party when one of the other guests makes an embarrassing social faux pas: he tries to bite her. Alexia deals admirably with this display of bad manners; unfortunately, the attack (and the inevitable vampire corpse) results in the summoning of her sometimes-nemesis Lord Maccon, head of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry and the leader of London’s werewolf pack.
Before long, both Alexia and Lord Maccon will be neck-deep (pun intended) in a mystery. Creating new vampires is difficult; it can only be done by vampire queens, and many promising candidates (all volunteers, in accordance with British law) do not survive the process. Newly-created vampires are therefore carefully protected by their hives and taught how and where to feed. But suddenly, hungry, confused newborn vampires are cropping up out of nowhere and attacking people at random. Who is creating them — and how?
Soulless is a fast and utterly charming read. Gail Carriger is a gifted writer; her prose is witty and the dialogue in the book sparkles. Soulless is full of little asides that poke gentle fun at the characters’ aristocratic Victorian worldview, like this gem:
Highland werewolves had a reputation for doing atrocious and highly unwarranted things, like wearing smoking jackets to the dinner table.
Alexia herself reminded me of an urban fantasy Amelia Peabody (one of my all-time favorite fictional characters). She’s been “on the shelf” for years and doesn’t have many expectations for her marriage prospects, but she’s buried herself in scientific literature and has managed to build herself an intellectually satisfying life within the strict social confines of her world. Speaking of Alexia’s scientific interests, one of my favorite parts of the book was how Carriger integrated nineteenth-century British science into her plot. This was, after all, the century of Darwin, and it makes perfect sense for Alexia to read scientific papers and follow the latest happenings at the Royal Society of London.
After I finished the book, however, I found myself wishing that it had more depth. Carriger’s worldbuilding feels a bit thin in comparison to my favorite urban fantasies; this is basically just nineteenth-century Britain with vampires and werewolves. I think I was also unconsciously comparing Soulless to Dreadnought, which has a much grittier take on nineteenth-century alternate history. In Soulless, the only hints we get of social or racial strife involve Alexia’s Italian last name and her unfashionably dark coloring.
I also found the relationship between Alexia and Lord Maccon predictable and a little dull. I liked both characters, but everything about their courtship felt like well-trod territory — especially after reading the Kate Daniels books, which develop a much more complicated relationship between an unusual woman and a supernatural leader. But to Carriger’s credit, Soulless doesn’t pretend that the reader will be surprised when romance develops and doesn’t try to create false will-they-or-won’t-they tension.
In the end, Soulless reminded me of Alexia’s beloved treacle tarts — tasty, but a bit one-dimensional.* There is a lot of room for Alexia’s world to grow, however, and Carriger’s smart, fast-paced writing is hard to resist. I will definitely be reading the second Parasol Protectorate book on my next airplane flight.
Rating: Library Loan
* I happen to love British desserts. Treacle tart isn’t one of my favorites, though — I’d much rather have some banoffee pie.