Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book Review: Soulless by Gail Carriger

I have often lamented that there are just not enough bustles, corsets, or ugly hats in traditional Gothic Horror Fantasy stories.  Thankfully, just in time, I was rescued from this wasteland of decolletage by the wasp-waisted wit if Victorian-era horror writer Gail Carriger and her new book, Soulless.

Having seen a release for the book from Orbit Press a few weeks ago, I decided to recommend it to our Suspense Central Moderator, Aurelia Long, as a potential candidate for August's New Kids on the Bloch: New Visions of Gothic Horror Theme.  When it was decided that this book would be the August selection, I immediately tore into it like a spinster into a treacle tart.

The book itself is the standard 'series starter book', replete with introductions of all the characters, set-up of the mechanics of the universe, and an explanation of who the opposing and allied forces are.  In the opening scene we meet Miss Alexia Tarabotti, English spinster extraordinary, and in the first two pages we see every paragraph, actually near every sentence, start of with the notable young woman's name.  This is incredibly off-putting, and were I made of less stern stuff, I would likely have stopped right there and then.  I am grateful that I persevered, though, for the rest of the book more than made up for the tedious two introductory pages.

Miss Tarabotti is the product of her mother's first marriage to an Italian emigre, is a notable bluestocking, and a preternatural.  What, you might well ask, is a preternatural?  Well,  a preternatural is a being who emits an aura that turns off the supernatural powers of Ghosts, Vampires, and Werewolves, rendering such supernatural creatures wholly mortal and, thus, easily dispatched.  In addition to her immunity from the supernatural predators, Miss Tarabotti has a brilliant mind, and has immersed herself in the sciences of Aetherics and Biology, as well as literature of a... less discrete sort.  While this might not seem important, trust me, it will be.

Surrounding our Victorian heroine in 1870's London is a cast of bizarrely well fleshed out characters.  As a point of fact, one has a tendency to forget that this is a first book by a new author, so well turned out are her characters.  From the gruffly romantic werewolf Lord Connal Maccon to his Pack Beta and partner at the BUR (Bureau of Unnatural Registry, where supernaturals are required to register) Professor Lyall and the mysterious and foppish dandy Vampire rove Lord Akeldama, we get an excellent taste of the supernatural, or nighttime set as the daylighters call them.  Looking into the daytime folk, we see one of the most amazing characters to ever grace the page, Miss Jill Hisselpenny (another spinster with a proclivity towards eye-searingly ugly hats), swanning about the society  the vapid and irritating pages with members of the Loontwill family (Miss Tarabotti's mama's family through her second marriage to the miser, Squire Loontwill), and the members of the Hypocras Club.

The setting itself is somewhat familiar, but definitely different in all the right places, somewhat like a proper Victorian dress should be. London in the 1870's has a few bands of Vampires, Werewolves, and Ghosts, who have apparently been living publicly since the time of Henry VIII, what they refer to as the end of the 'Dark Ages'.  Unlike much of Europe, and the rest of the world, which is divided on the supernatural issue, the Church of England has not taken a stance against the supernaturals, and has instead welcomed them into society, even going so far as to place a Vampire and a Werewolf as specific councilors to her Majesty the Queen (the Potentate and the Dewan in order to be precise).

THAC0: 5

From the opening scene with the poorly dressed and gauche Vampire to the various climaxes that conclude the book, Soulless could well be called Relentless because it simply never lets up.  The action is ratcheted up every scene, the suspense ratchets up every chapter, and the mystery deepens with every sentence.  While this book, and it sequels, will likely be more appealing to those with a historical bent, I feel that any fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sookie Stackhouse, and/or Harry Dresden will be enchanted by this book as much as fans of HG Wells and Jules Verne will.

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