Alexia Tarabotti is an unusual woman. She's a spinster, not terribly attractive, yet intelligent and intellectual - but that's not what sets her apart from others in this alternate version of Victorian London in which vampires and werewolves live openly among humans. What makes her so different is the fact that she does not have a soul. She is a preternatural, which means that should she touch a vampire or a werewolf, she drains it of its supernatural powers for as long as that contact lasts.
When she comes across a vampire while sneaking off to the library during a party, and that vampire seems to have no idea who or what she is, persisting in attacking her until she is forced to kill it in self defense, Alexia becomes embroiled in a mystery that involves the vampires and werewolves of London. She is in a unique position to discover why so many of them are mysteriously disappearing, but when she finally does stumble across the truth, she finds herself in well over her head. Along the way she butts heads with Lord Maccon, Alpha to the London werewolves, and the evolution of their love/exasperation relationship is truly entertaining.
As I went through the bookblogosphere, searching for my usual review links to post at the end of my review, I was struck by the wide variety of opinions I found. Thea and Ana from The Book Smugglers were highly annoyed by the similarities between the main characters of this book to the characters in Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series. Others adored it without reservations. Still others felt they would have enjoyed the book more had they not had certain expectations from a book that is labeled as horror and/or steampunk.
Because I love to approach a book knowing as little as possible about it as I can, I did not have expectations of any particular kind. All I knew was that it was historical novel involving a female lead, vampires and werewolves. That's pretty much all I need to know about a book before I begin it. I thought it was a fun, funny, lighthearted romp. Alexia is a product of her time, in that she is completely caught up in fashion and social expectations, even if she is flaunting them, but behaves in a way that makes her seem like a modern heroine - sneaking out at night, entertaining men alone in her house, in rooms behind closed doors - the sort of thing no one would bat an eye at these days, but that would have irreparably ruined her reputation back then. So even though her behavior in the context of Victorian society was not particularly believable to me, the book was fast-paced and entertaining, and the concept of the soul as being integral to the way supernatural powers work was fresh and new. I did wonder about the ramifications of the fact that Alexia lacks a soul - she does not seem to wonder what that bodes for her in the afterlife, which puzzled me a bit, but perhaps we will learn more about her soulless state as the series progresses.
Alexia would definitely not be called a "kick-ass" heroine, which is, I think, what we've come to expect of our supernatural leading women in series books these days. She is at times irritatingly passive, and at others impulsive and a bit thoughtless. Still, her heart is in the right place, and she is rather new to the concept of an exciting life of supernatural mystery and intrigue. This is the very first book of a series, and I think it is wise to allow it and the characters room to grow and change - and I will definitely be on board to see where the events of Alexia's life take her next.
Books in the Parasol Protectorate series:
Soulless (#1 in the Parasol Protectorate series) by Gail Carriger (Orbit, 2009)
Also reviewed at:
The Book Smugglers: "Even though I found myself less than impressed with the writing, the mislabeled genre, and the eerily familiar characters, I cannot deny that there was something in this novel that kept me reading."
Booklust: "The writing absolutely sparkles. It is witty, it is sassy, it is wonderful. Not only the dialogue between characters, but also the internal dialogue."
The Discriminating Fangirl: "The mystery is fun and interesting, but I think my favorite part of the story is the budding romance between Alexia and Lord Maccon. It is also in the vein of Peabody and Emerson, and nothing lights my fires like a good love-hate relationship."
Heidenkind's Hideaway: "There were parts of Soulless that I definitely enjoyed (basically all the scenes with Lord Maccon), but there weren't enough of them for me to like the whole book. I can see why others people liked it--it's definitely likable--but the lack of story telling and characterization beyond clothing put me off, and the hipness quotient wasn't enough to make up for it."