Good morning and welcome to Sci Fi Sunday! At least for now, Reality Check is done. It's been subbed and we're awaiting the results. In the meantime, we'd like to discuss Steampunk, and the new story we're working on. Never fear, you'll hear of Reno and Kay again, but we have new boys to bring you! And theirs is a Steampunk world.
My daughter Sarah wrote a review of Gail Carriger's novel Soulless, first in her Parasol Protectorate series. It's the first modern Steampunk I'd read, and I can directly attribute my reading it to my daughter's review, so here it is, and enjoy!
Soulless: Parasol Protectorate book 1
Author: Gail Carriger
American release date: October 1st 2009
Format/Genre/Length: Novel/Supernatural/357 pages
Publisher/Industry Age Rating: Older Teen
Overall Personal Rating: C+
Similar series/titles to check out: Leviathan; Discworld; the Sookie Stackhouse novels
In an alternative Victorian-era England where werewolves and vampires are accepted occurrences and steampunk reigns supreme, it takes a young woman from high society who has no soul to cut through the nonsense and get to the important matters - like when the treacle tart is to be served.
Alexia Tarabotti, half-Italian spinster with no soul who loves food, is greatly offended when she is attacked by a half-starved vampire during a social outing, a terrible breach of etiquette not to mention not very good for her health. She manages to kill the vampire with her parasol and a wooden stake/hair pin, thus bringing the attention of BUR (Bureau of Unnatural Registry) on her as well as the queen of a nearby vampire hive. Luckily one of BUR's top officials arrives in the form of the dashing upper crust rogue/werewolf Lord Maccon, who is ordered by the Queen herself to investigate the matter; he is already an acquaintance of Miss Tarabotti and swears to protect her from those who wish harm on her - well, if they could stop squabbling at each other and work together in peace. Accompanying him is Professor Lyall, second in command and the arguable voice of reason among BUR, who honestly thinks Alexia and His Lordship could be very close friends if they gave their silly games a break for just one minute.
It soon becomes evident that the problem facing London's supernatural society is bigger than imagined as vampires unregistered and unrecognized start appearing around town, while registered vampires who are associated with known hives are disappearing without a trace. And it isn't just the vampires in a frenzy, as BUR's werewolves are finding out the hard way. Even Lord Akeldama, the foppish gossip king of London, doesn't know what's going on. As a soulless - someone who can drain the paranormal abilities of a vampire or werewolf with just a touch - Alexia becomes an unwilling target for all the blame, and she's not terribly pleased about it. As danger looms nearer, it's up to Alexia Tarabotti to unravel the mystery of these disappearances before her reputation is ruined forever and her status as a soulless is revealed - or worse, a painful and unbecoming death.
I must confess: I have not read much steampunk. I am also not the biggest fan of either werewolves or vampires. I also do not read a lot of Victorian lit, either from the era or inspired by it. Having said that, you would think I'd avoid a novel like Soulless by author Gail Carriger, which combines all of the above into one work. I picked the title up in the name of morbid curiosity, and found myself drawn into a solid story with some bumps in the road that kept it from being excellent. Not terrible, but not golden. Having said that, fans of the genre of fiction that centers around characters of the paranormal persuasion will love this book. Each race of fantastic creatures each have their own mythos that is slightly different than the ones paraded around in Twilight and The Vampire Diaries. Not to mention, they are all terribly polite to the point that it plagues the rules of their species - an amusing side-effect from being born in times of Victorian niceties. In an era of novels like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it's nice to see someone play the bloody tropes straight and have their world of petticoats and hansom cabs accept the presence of werewolves and vampires without having to outright wage war on them.
Fans of steampunk, I'm sorry to say, should find their cogs and gears fix somewhere else. The most steampunk elements of the book are the interest in science running rampant through academia, an apparent interest in the steampunk aesthetic demonstrated by both vampires and werewolves, the dirigibles in the skies over London (which just remind this reviewer of the zeppelins in the alternate universe on Doctor Who), and Alexia's parasol, which is designed to protect her against unwholesome beasties. Aside from that, there are no grandiose steampunk-esque machines or experiments until the tail end of the book. Alexia, although an avid bookworm and thinker, never rolls up her sleeves and tinkers with machinery. Nothing about average Victorian society apart from the dirigibles suggest a steampunk atmosphere - and it confounds me that they would use it as a selling point when I can't really see it in the text. The bloody cover is more steampunk than the book itself.
(And as for the cover itself? Alexia Tarabotti looks slim and pale skinned, not the lightly tanned and curvy Rubenesque young woman described in the novel. Plus, she is wearing a stereotypically steampunk hat that isn't even hers. This isn't the kind of whitewashed cover that Justine Larbalestier's Liar got, not by a long shot, but it pretty much wipes out the fact that Alexia is half-Italian with a complexion to match and is not a 'perfect hourglass' figure.)
Having said all that, Soulless is not without its merits, despite it sounding like there are none. For example, it is obvious that Derriger did a metric ton's worth of research on the intricate details of Victorian era living, from the foods and clothing to the dining etiquette and social manners that were so prevalent during that period. Like any good English Victorian novel, it is packed with dry wit (which, as I hear from self-declared Brit John Oliver, is something the English invented themselves) and manages to make even the most simple social slip-ups remarkably hilarious. I love that when Alexia is in the face of mortal danger from a vampire her biggest worry is on the lines of how scandalous her untied hair must seem or that she really picked a bad day to wear her best evening gown.
Alexia Tarabotti herself is the perfect kind of main protagonist you want narrating a tale of supernatural going-ons in prim and proper London. She is a spinster with a dark complexion and curves to spare, a woman who loves to read and is far too intelligent for her own good - aka the kind of woman their mother despairs over because she'll never marry, and society pretty much dismisses her as a never-do-anything because of it. Does it bring her down? Of course not. She does what she wants, is capable of protecting herself thank you very much Lord Maccon, and once she sets her mind on something that something usually gets done no matter what. Alexia is stubborn and clever in a pinch and her constant snarky Victorian-era point of view as she straddles upholding social standards in all situations and navigating the waters of the vampire/werewolf realm brings a clarity to some of the more convoluted aspects of the time. Even the golden age of scientific discovery, it seems, can't stop society from upholding ridiculous moral and social attitudes that make things overly complicated, even for someone who was used to it. It's a shame that, in ostracizing Alexia from society and thus making her a candidate for BUR's meddling, that they over-emphasize her Italian features and body shape. I understand that it is a Victorian viewpoint and it is Alexia herself telling the story, but there must be more subtle and better ways of separating one from the pack without resorting to overly describing her physical characteristics. (There's also the fact that the prose seems confused on whether she is barely tan or very much tan, but that could be another thing chalked up to the narrator's own self-perceived flaws.)
Alexia's foil presents itself in the form of Lord Maccon, and the back blurb of the novel describes him perfectly: loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf. I often find that when a writer tries to integrate the wolf-aspects into the human form's personality, it doesn't end well and seems painfully forced, but for Lord Maccon his werewolfish tendencies while still looking very much a human are a delight to read. He is just as stubborn and snarky as Alexia, and every time they butt heads over BUR policy or a social disaster you can practically smell the romantic tension building up between them. I found myself cheering for their very dysfunctional romance, and I'm not the type to cheer for the main characters to become couples straight out of the gate. When Alexia learns via Professor Lyall that Lord Maccon has actually begun courting her werewolf-fashion, her responses to his advances from then on are some of the most amusing and titillating scenes in the book. Yes, things get very steamy between our Victorian heroine and her dashing rogue friend, but never does it become embarrassingly explicit or unnecessarily detailed. After all, it's not a smut book, it's a mostly-general supernatural fantasy set in steampunkish Victorian England, dang it! This is the era of the Brontë sisters and Wilkie Collins; fade to black or be gone with you!
The only other time that Soulless outright addresses sexuality is through Lord Akeldama, whom upon meeting him for the first time you'd be foolish not to notice that he is English, intelligent, and gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide. It is never expressed in those words, but you'd have to be blind, living under a rock, and have never interacted with any sort of media to not realize Lord Akeldama prefers vampires his own gender - and probably those who share his extremely vibrant and garish taste in clothing. Reading Derriger's descriptions of his usual outfits, you can imagine how many times Alexia has to look away from the vastly technicolor nature of his design. But Lord Akeldama is also one of the most intelligent and clever people in the entire novel, someone who has ears practically everywhere in England and is a very useful informant when Alexia or BUR needs some intel on what's what. This is why, when Akeldama admits to Alexia that he doesn't know what is going on with the disappearances, you can feel that it's not right. Akeldama, the man who knows too much, knows nothing? The fact that this happens only briefly after first meeting him and yet has the power to affect the reader's perception of the problem at hand should highlight some of the skill in which author Derriger wields her control over the ongoing drama than runs through the main narrative; under all the English humor and romantic situations there is always a hint of danger on the horizon, a clue that something more sinister and dangerous is approaching for the cast that will test the lot of them in unthinkable ways. This is what kept me reading page after page despite its flaws: Derriger made me want to know what would happen next. An author who can effectively grab a reader's attention and then slowly pull them in like a sinkhole until the very end is one to be remembered with great respect.
The second book in the series, Changeless, is on my list of books to read. I think that as a second book, it will be more satisfying that the first as it will be a story with an already establish universe and therefore will not suffer from the growing pains that are evident in the world-building process that goes on throughout Soulless, at times reading more like mindless exposition than thoughtful background information. It's clear that Derriger took great pains to set up this alternate universe of machines and manners and beasties all meshed together, but the effort getting there seems to have seeped through the actual prose too well. I can't help but think that if she had laid off on revealing some of the information introduced in the first chapter until it didn't seem like such a pile of info that the entire process would have read a lot more smoothly.
In all, Soulless is a solid read for fans of the biologically strange and socially astute, and is a fascinating look into a world hopefully expanded upon in the following books of the series. I can't help but be intrigued and attracted to the character of Alexia Tarabotti, and as long as she is headlining this steampunk world of high society and secret magics, I will continue to follow her continuing adventures until their conceivable end.
Overall Grade: C+
An intriguing tale of paranormal dilemmas in steampunk London, led by a fascinating main protag; not much steampunk to actually qualify the tag, descriptions of certain characters were jarring and at some points flat out unnecessary.
This review was just to whet your appetitite, there'll be more, I promise. Any questions? Any comments? I'd love to hear from you!
♥ Julie and Sue