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Soulless

I read a lot, but that reading happens only in a few specific genres. Predictable ones if you’ve read anything on Teleport City — science fiction mostly, with a tiny smattering of fantasy, and a healthy dose of non-fiction ranging from military history, travelogues, and anything where Teddy Roosevelt punches out a rhinoceros and gets malaria while exploring some remote niche of the globe. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given my fondness for horror films, is that I read almost no horror fiction at all. I don’t know why this has traditionally been the case. What I read in the past just didn’t click with me. I mean, there was some Clive Barker, sure. Everyone in the eighties read Clive Barker. But the Barker I liked skewed much more toward the fantastic than actual horror — Weaveworld, The Great and Secret Show, Everville, and Imajica.

Beyond that, well, I read The Keep, and I read Dracula and Frankenstein when I was a kid and probably too young to digest everything that was going in on them. I don’t know what it was that kept me away. I think in the end it might have been something as simple as I liked watching horror movies more than I liked reading horror books.

When I moved to New York, a daily commute by train coupled with the feeling that I was getting stupider in my old age encouraged me to take up reading again. Recently, I’ve started thinking that maybe I should give horror another go. We’re in the middle of something of a horror literature boom now, though much of it is aimed at an audience more than half my age. I know there has been a lot of grumbling about the rise of this particular offshoot of horror fiction, these tween tales of angsty teen vampires and urban witches. Supernatural — and especially vampire — novels are under assault these days, both from readers and authors. On the front of authors, it’s writers with very little knowledge of or regard for the classical tenants and folkloric roots of the sundry beasties with which they populate their tales, resulting in eternal high schooler vampires who sparkle in the sunlight rather than burst into flame. On the other front, that of readers, it’s adverse reaction to the sudden pop culture cache of what are regarded as generally poorly written books involving the supernatural — “tween” romance as it were, with magick and monsters shoehorned in. I admit that for a while, I was happy to pile on the disdain and sneer at these interlopers into the genres I so cherished.

But recently, and thanks in no small part to a polite but firm chastising at the hands of Carol from The Cultural Gutter, I had reason to question why I was being so pissy about all this teenage vampire nonsense. And ultimately, I determined the problem was with me, and not with the writers or the legion of fans they have attracted.

When forced to seriously (or as serious as I can ever manage to be) consider my upturned nose, I thought about how cool it would have been if, as a kid, I had such a huge array of books about vampires, werewolves, and witches being targeted at me. In my own tween years, I was a big fan of fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure literature, and I wonder if there weren’t a bunch of old curmudgeons sitting in leather chairs at The Explorers’ Club, puffing on ivory pipes and shaking their muttonchop sideburn-adorned jowls about how the adventures of Tom Swift or Encyclopedia Brown or whoever were childish, watered down claptrap not at all like the robust, more respectable literature of their days. I don’t want to be those guys, complaining about how the kids these days have terrible taste in music and things were better in my day, when vampires were mean and we were all going to die in a nuclear war, except those of us who managed to survive thanks to investing in leather pants, shoulderpads, and dune buggies.

So yeah — what did it matter to me if a generation of young girls were falling in love with sappy vampire fiction? Who cares if they vampires with which they were fascinated were not the same as the ones I liked? Did it somehow make my monsters any less fun for me? No, let the kids have their fun. Hell, it should be celebrated. An entire ocean of literature that teaches young kids that weird, spooky, awkward, and different people are awesome? I can deal with that. I’d rather read ten Twilights than a single… I don’t know, are there Bratz novelizations or something? And as a kid who grew up on all things spooky and monstrous, I’d be much happier with my own kids reading young adult urban fantasy or vampire stuff than books about cheerleaders and joining the popular clique.

So I decided that I might as well take the plunge. Or maybe not a plunge, but at least wade slowly into the waters of modern horror writing. But still, I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy one of the many books with a sword-wielding witch girl in skinny jeans and a crop top on the cover. I’m not a man who is especially prone to shying away from things “not meant for men,” but if I was going to test the waters of horror, I was going to do so via a setting more suited to my particular tastes. In other words, something with waistcoats and cravats. Some random poking around lead me to think that Gail Carriger’s Soulless – a thoroughly modern take on traditional Victorian England — might be just the thing for which I was looking.

Alexia Tarabotti is, by the standards of Victorian British society, is a total wash. Half Italian, she has darker skin, darker hair, and a larger nose than is the societal ideal. She’s also possessed of a intellectual streak and stubbornness inherited from her late Italian father, that has kept her unmarried even at the ancient age of twenty-six. Her mother has written the fiery spinster off as a failure, and her half-sisters — both blonde, fair skinned, and bubbly — are primarily worried about what their quirky sister will do to their social status. Alexia’s life threatens to upend everything when, during a posh gala, she retires to a library for a bite to eat and is set upon by a vampire, himself desperate for a bite.

Which is when we learn that Alexia is not just a plucky spinster with an interest in the supernatural. She is, herself, supernatural, or rather preternatural — soulless, a rare type of person whose “power” is to render all supernatural beings perfectly normal for as long as she maintains physical contact with them. This is, we quickly learn, a Victorian London slightly different from the one we may remember from history. Supernatural folk — vampires, werewolves, and ghosts primarily — not only exist, but are integrated into regular society, with a complex set of rules detailing the roles they play in life. For the most part, though, they are citizens like anyone else, merely keeping slightly different schedules. Keeping everyone in line is the business of BUR, the Bureau of Unnatural Registry. One of the organizations chief operatives is Conall Maccon, well-to-do earl who also happens to be a werewolf.

When Alexia accidentally kills the attacking vampire, she and Lord Maccon — who hate each other in that way that means they are obviously in love — must figure out who the vampire is and why he was so ignorant of rules and regulations — both those of BUR as well as those imposed by the traditions of the vampire hives of London. Uncovering this leads the duo and and assortment of colleagues and friends into a plot involving rogue scientists, mad experiments, and of course, complicated games of courtship and manners. Known supernaturals are disappearing, and new ones are popping up across London, with no ties to any existing pack or hive and no idea what it means to be a supernatural. In addition, a shady mystery man seems to have taken a particular interest in Alexia, who seems somehow to be in the middle of things.

Truth be told, there are few ideas in Soulless that we haven’t encountered many times over. But this is 2011; humanity has been telling stories for tens of thousands of years, so we’re bound to repeat ourselves. Anyway, as I’ve said when reviewing movies, I don’t necessarily demand that a story or its characters be especially unique. Formula and cliche that is well executed can often prove immensely enjoyable. That’s certainly the case with Soulless, which is populated by recognizable “comedy of manners” type characters, even if a few of them have the added twist of being werewolves or vampires. What Carriger does with those characters is a great deal of fun, however.

From the outset, Carriger creates a believable world populated by likable characters. The uppity spinster who prefers intelligence and adventure over being brainless arm candy for a snooty lord is not a new character, but Alexia Tarabotti is that archetype executed very well. Plus, Carriger doesn’t shy away from imbuing her heroine with feminine traits appropriate for the time. Miss Tarabotti dies, it turns out, love fashion, dressing well, and attending social functions. She is tough and independent, but not at the expense of falling in love or being unwilling to depend on a man for certain things. And she’s not an infallible hroine. She makes bad calls, misses certain things, and occasionally does something stupid — though never stupid purely for the sake of moving the plot along. She simply makes a bad decision here and there that is entirely human and believable. This sort of character can sometimes cross into the territory of shrill know-it-allism, but Carriger expertly keeps Alexia well within the realm of likable. Competent but not unbelievably or irritatingly so.

Her male counterpart, Lord Maccon, is also a fairly stock character done well. The blustering and frequently exasperated man who is antagonistic toward the heroine primarily because he is so in love with her. But again, while Maccon may be stock, he’s not generic. First of all, he’s a gentleman werewolf, and you have to respect a werewolf that knows how to properly tie his cravat. But more importantly, he doesn’t spend the entire novel denying his feelings for Alexia That only occupies about the first half of the book. After that, he’s ready for a roll in the hay and marriage. He’s also not particularly threatened by Alexia’s assertiveness or worried that being with such a forward woman is in any way emasculating. The traits everyone rattles off as Alexia’s biggest short-fallings are the ones he finds so alluring. They may butt heads and tease one another, but he’s by no means getting the short end of the stick in the battle of the sexes.

Surrounding them is a cast of supporting characters that appear for exactly the amount of time they need to appear: Alexia’s friend Ivy with awful taste in hats; Maccon’s second in command Professor Lyall; and my personal favorite, foppish vampire Lord Akeldama and his house full of mincing dandies, all of whom are keenly capable despite their outwardly frilly appearance. They all inhabit a world that is mostly familiar save for the commonality of supernatural folk, but the description of how they’ve been integrated into everyday British life is interesting and believable. So too is the mention in the book that not all countries are created equal when it comes to accepting supernaturals, with America being a particularly hostile and backward place for vampires, ghosts, and werewolves.

Carriger writes in the style of a Jane Austin style romance, and in fact Soulless comes across as much more of a mystery romance than horror novel, though the romance is free from the navel gazing angst of a lot of tween horror fiction. This is a more adult novel, with adult characters, so we older types aren’t forced to endure the ennui of overly dramatic teen romance. Instead, we get a crash course on Victorian decorum and the value of proper manners, even for a werewolf. Carriger’s prose is brisk and smart without being overly involved, and the storytelling is straight-forward and enjoyable. There are no real twists or turns in the mystery, which I’m actually thankful for since “twists” are often poorly thought out. Sometimes, you just want a story that tells you a story without trying to fake you out every other sentence. Carriger has a strong, uncomplicated core plot she can use as a foundation to build her world and develop the characters who live in it.

As for the supernatural aspects, I was pretty happy with Carriger’s interpretation of the classical monsters. The vampires are basically as we horror fans expect them to be, so long as you like the snooty, cultured ideal of a vampire. If you’re looking for throat-ripping animalism, you’ll not find that, but everything else about the vampires is as it should be. The werewolves are also more or less in line with expectations. They can transform at will, but this is harder the further away they are from a full moon, and during the full moon, their transformation into a wolf cannot be stopped, nor are they particularly good at controlling themselves during this time. Ghosts are present and commonplace in Gail Carriger’s London, but at least in this novel, they don’t really make an appearance.

I was very happy with Soulless and found it an immensely enjoyable read. Quickly paced, humorous, exciting, and interesting. Never really scary, per se, but like I said, this is more of an adventure or romance than it is horror tale — though the finale in the dungeons below London manages some harrowing bits, as do scenes involving a wax-faced automoton. Mostly, though, Soulless is a bouncy, breezy ride full of fun characters, some of whom just happen to be werewolves and vampires. I’ve done my fair share of grim reading lately, so I was thankful for a book that left me smiling. I look forward to moving on to the next book in the series.]]>