Soulless, the first in the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger, makes the vampire/werewolf paranormal fantasy romance genre feel new again by moving the action from the modern day to Victorian England. That statement may seem specious, but it doesn’t matter if vampires and werewolves first became popular in Victorian settings, they’ve been prowling in the present day so regularly lately that I suspect most readers, like me, have forgotten what it’s like to put them in the past.
Carriger’s trick is to maintain many of the conventions of urban fantasy–the spunky heroine, the alternate history where supernatural creatures have partially revealed their existence, the blend of action and romance, the eccentric secondary characters–while also having great fun with her historical setting.
The success of Soulless begins with heroine Alexia Tarabotti. She’s a spinster, of Italian descent, and opinionated when other women of her era (particularly her mother and sisters) are focused on finding a good match, appearing like proper English roses, and deferring quickly to men in all practical matters. Alexia’s passionate about food, her parasol, and her beliefs, which derive from a most unladylike interest in science. Worst of all (and hidden from all but a few), she’s also a “preternatural, ” born without a soul, which makes her a kind of human antidote to supernatural creatures, whom she renders human. In sum, she’s a delightful fish out of water. Alexia compares herself to the model of her time and finds herself lacking, but readers will find her model of womanhood preferable. Although they often don’t understand why, most of the educated folk she encounters in the book find her strangely attractive as well. This feeling is multiplied for Lord Maccon, a powerful, argumentative alpha-male werewolf who finds her completely vexing… and completely irresistible.
There’s clever worldbuilding here, an England where two opposing supernatural groups, werewolves and vampires, have learned to police their behaviors and found respect as shadow advisers to the Crown. Lord Maccon is the chief minister in London for the BUR, a supernatural police arm. Using plenty of steampunk touches (edgy experiments, airships, amateur scientist-adventurers), Carriger develops a story in which Alexia and Maccon independently discover aspects of a plot against the supernatural community.
I also loved the secondary characters, always a good sign for a new series. I’m sure that Lord Akeldama, a foppish vampire; Ivy Hisselpenny, Alexia’s fashionless friend; Professor Lyall, Maccon’s second; and Alexia’s nattering family will have greater roles to play in future adventures.
Finally, this book works well as a romance. Alexia and Maccon are completely discombobulated by their feelings at first, interpreting them as dislike instead of attraction. This makes for the most hysterical lovemaking scenes I’ve ever read, with the pair bickering and bewildered as the action gets hotter and hotter. Women in particular will respond to this book (and probably the series, continued with the recently-released Changeless). But if I’m any indication, men will find plenty to enjoy, too.
Check the WRL catalog for Soulless