Book Review: Gail Carriger’s Soulless (or: This is what I get for trying new things redux)
I just read a romance novel by accident.
Let me explain!
Genres are a tricky thing. It’s kind of funny, as at the local library, a book with a rocketship on the cover will get put into the “sci fi” section, while a book with a dragon on the cover gets put into “general fiction.” It’s strange and completely arbitrary, but what can you do.
In any case, the book I just read has neither rockets nor dragons on the cover, so I’ve got no idea where the poor librarian would wind up shelving it. So I guess it’s a good thing that I picked it up at a secondhand bookstore instead?
So yeah, to categorize Gail Carriger’s Souless, I’d break it down thusly: Fantasy → Urban Fantasy → Paranormal Romance. Subgenres are fun!
In case you haven’t been to a bookstore lately, Urban Fantasy is a genre that’s risen to prominence in the last 15 years or so. Urban Fantasy really boils down to the question “What if there were fantasy monsters in the real world?” so, instead of reading about elves and dwarves going on a quest to battle Ye Olde Dark Lord, you get a story about vampires and werewolves teaming up to fight crime. No, really.
Now, the interesting thing about Urban Fantasy is that it arguably has one of the biggest gender divisions in modern genre literature. As on the one hand, you have ‘boys’ Urban Fantasy, which usually centers around some kind of hard-assed occult investigator dude, who gets involved in supernatural mysteries and may wind up killing a bunch of evil monsters by the time the book’s through. (Also, they may hook up with some kind of magic hottie at some point). Examples: Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Simon Green’s Drood novels, or Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series, just off the top of my head.
Then, there’s the matter of ‘girls’ Urban Fantasy- which may get into the sub-subgenre of ‘Paranormal Romance.’ These novels also feature various monster-y creatures juxtaposed into the ‘real’ world, but the real difference is in the protagonist. Paranormal Romances center around a female protagonist who is actually kind of kick-ass, possibly due to some sort of rare special power they have for whatever reason.
The thing is, whatever special snowflake power they have isn’t enough to stop them from falling in luuuuurve with the parade of hot monster dudes that walk their way. Examples: Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan series, or Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries. I’m being nice and not mentioning Twilight as an example of the genre…except I just did. Shit. Though there are plenty of Urban Fantasy heroines who are also murder on two legs, but it’s less of a focus, or something.
So yeah! This brings us to Carriger’s Soulless. I’d definitely put it in the ‘Paranormal Romance’ sub-subgenre, with all the werewolves and vampires running around. And on top of that, Alexia Tarabotti, the novel’s protagonist, does have a super special superpower- namely, since she happens to lack a soul (see the title!) this allows her to cancel out the superpowers of the various vampires and werewolves running about. Her other ‘power,’ as it were, is being half Italian. And then she meets the dashing Earl of Woosley, who is most inconveniently Scottish (and also a Werewolf).
See, what makes Carriger’s Soulless different from the stacks of other Paranormal Romance novels out there is the matter of setting and tone. The book is set in the Victorian era (albiet one with night-beasties running around), and so everyone in the novel has a very English sense of propriety. Carriger writes with a very wry, sardonic tone, which is really what makes the novel.
Alexia is a fun character- her Soulless status (not to mention her half Italian heritage) makes her enough of an outsider to Vaguely Victorian English culture to give her a proper amount of snark, but she’s still involved enough to get properly flustered whenever something truly scandalous (or Scottish) pops up.
To be honest, I found that Soulless tended more towards the ‘Romance’ side of ‘Paranormal Romance.’ I mean, you have a rugged and scottish Werewolf love interest, disapproving family members, and even a Sassy Gay Friend (who is also a vampire). The novel occasionally veers into material I can only describe as ‘saucy, but not scandalous.’ As in, well, there are occasional multi-page passages that made me raise an eyebrow, but it’s not explicit. Well, barely not explicit. It’s all delicately worded, which makes it classy, I guess?
There’s a little bit of a plot regarding some secret society kidnapping various supernatural critters to experiment on them, but it’s honestly resolved fairly quickly. Likewise, the whole Alexia/Werewolf Earl business also manages to wrap itself up before long. Queen Victoria even shows up at the end to set a few things right, because that’s what you have a Queen for, I guess.
Ultimately, Soulless is a fluffy, forgettable novel. The plot’s not too deep, the setting’s not all that fleshed out, and several of the characters are cast directly from Trope-central, albeit with the occasional supernatural varnish. This said, Soulless is also a very enjoyable novel, mostly through Carriger’s wry wit. So on the one hand, I wouldn’t expect Soulless to change anyone’s life, but on the other, there are worse things to read on a plane or a lunchbreak or wherever you get your reading time in. Basic google-ing tells me that this is actually the first novel in a series- I suppose I wouldn’t object to reading the next book or two if the opportunity presented itself, but I’m not struck with the sudden inescapable urge to track the whole series down and binge-read them, either.
But hey, it’s better than Twilight. Not that that’s a high bar to pass, but I digress.