Thursday, February 24, 2011
Author: Gail Carriger
By all standards, I should have loved Soulless. The plot, while nothing new, is well-paced and executed. The setting is interesting, and certainly unique. The writing is witty and vibrant. The central couple has chemistry and they're entertainingly belligerent to each other. But somehow, the book didn't draw me in. I enjoyed myself, but it was a very tepid kind of enjoyment. In many ways Soulless is the opposite of last week's forray. That book made some mistakes, but drew me in nevertheless. Soulless does everything right, but failed to grab me.
Soulless takes place in an alternate-history Victorian England where the supernatural is real. Our heroine, Alexia Tarabotti, is a preternatural -- a kind of supernatural-attribute nullifier. Her touch causes vampires and werewolves to become human again for as long as she can remain in physical contact. This proves to be very handy when, in the opening scene, she's attacked by a starving vampire who she then goes Buffy on. A vampire corpse draws the attention of Lord Connal Maccon, a higher-up in the Bureau of Unnatural Registration, who sets out to investigate. Alexia and Lord Maccon have a bit of a history. They can be found arguing whenever they're in the same room as a way of diffusing the sexual tension that is blatantly obvious to every character in the book except for the couple themselves. With Alexia as a material witness, however, they can't really avoid each other. So the Tsundere dance -- actually called the "Bitch's Dance" in the book, a not-inappropriate analog -- begins in earnest, while the mystery soon deepens with reports of lone werewolves and hive-less vampires going missing. And whoever's behind it all soon targets Alexia as well.
I felt out of my depth with Soulless, probably because it's half urban fantasy and half historical romance. While I'm well-versed in the former, the latter is a strange and foreign realm to me. Soulless devotes an anomalously large amount of space to navigating matters of etiquette and to lavish descriptions of clothes, rooms, and foodstuffs. I'm assuming this is part of the period piece structure, but not being familiar with this genre, I'm not sure where Carriger is subverting tropes, where she's playing them straight, and where she's displaying her own personal style. It's also kind of distracting. While the author is clearly enjoying the setting, I wish she would just get on with the story.
Mind you, I may have been expecting the wrong kind of story. That opening scene where Alexia dispatches a vampire in a manner that suggests she's done this before is a bit of false advertising. She spends most of the novel social networking in search of information and trying to get together with Lord Maccon in a vaguely-respectable way. I don't mind this because, as I said, they have chemistry together. And investigation stories are interesting too. Still, though, after that first chapter I was expecting a bit more action. For the body of the novel, Alexia tends to kick and scream when someone comes after her, or rely on more combat-ready characters to save her.
Despite this poor management of reader expectations, though, the story is put together immaculately well. Except for that out-of-character opening, there's not a single scene that's unnecessary, gratuitous, or out of place. Everything moves along very briskly, and each little bit contributes to the plot. The major weak point in all this is the villain, who is a laughable combination of raving psycho and mad scientist. And the swerve into steampunk near the end after an entire book spent on supernatural/historical is a little disconcerting, if not unexpected.
And the writing works, too. Alexia has a strong voice and is rootable, her main love interest has the appealing, rakish air, but doesn't display the borderline-abusive tendencies of too many PNR heroes. The supporting cast is amusing and entertaining. Everything's carried off with a lightness that says the author is taking this seriously, but not too much so.
In short, nearly everything goes right. So why didn't I like it more than I did?
Well, the issue seems to be that while everything is done right, everything is also very by-the-book. Fans of the T.V. show House will remember this one story arc at the beginning of the fourth season where the eponymous character was auditioning replacements for his banished team. One woman, on being booted from the pool, protests that she did nothing wrong while others screwed up. House responds, "Other people took chances." Soulless has the same problem. It plays it too safe -- it doesn't take risks or do much of anything that's original. I felt like I'd seen everything before. Admittedly not in a victorian environment, but still, there was an air of been there, done that about it.
The weird thing is, this normally wouldn't bother me. I've lauded works with unoriginal stories before, because they carried them off with style. Soulless has a style, certainly. The author has a deft touch and a talent for world-building, but it just didn't take. Near the end I realized that the core problem with the book may be that Carriger doesn't have any new ideas. A lot of stuff happens, and some of it is interesting, but it profits nothing because there's no point to it. There's the eventual payoff of watching Alexia and Lord Maccon canoodle, but that feels like self-indulgent wish fulfillment. It comes off as a rather hollow story overall. Which means, somewhat ironically, that Soulless doesn't have any real soul of its own. There's no substance here.
But I don't want to be too negative. Soulless was not memorable, no. But it did amuse me, and it kept me reading until the end. And while I don't exactly get the appeal, I can certainly see it. It just didn't resonate. What I'm trying to say is, if you like historical romances or steampunkish mysteries, then Soulless might be worth a try. But if you're not already an established fan of one or the other, I doubt that you'll really get it. I didn't. A pity, but there it is.