Gail Carriger

Orbit (2009)

ISBN: 978-0-316-05663-2

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce

I have never been caught up in the paranormal romance obsession. Unless they’re being hunted by Hugh Jackman or Wesley Snipes, vampires have rarely done it for me, and werewolves even less so. I have never opened a Twilight book, never seriously watched Buffy, and never come close to Sookie Sackhouse (all of which a number of my friends can ruefully confirm). Which makes it all the stranger that I read, and enjoyed, Soulless.

I was initially interested in the book because of a friend’s description of it as ‘mannerpunk’. I’d read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I thought vampires and werewolves in Victorian London may well be worth a go (despite not being a fan of the period). And once I picked it up, and discovered that the main character’s name is Alexia – well, I’m no more immune to vanity than the next person.

This is an England where vampires and werewolves, have been a basically accepted part of society for some centuries. Everyone knows they exist; the monarch’s council has permanent representatives from each group; they have groupies, their own clubs, and a government department devoted to looking after them (or keeping tabs on them). What the world doesn’t know is that there is also another sort of person: the preternatural. Someone who has no soul. That would be Alexia.

Set within the overarching context of how a society could cope with vampires and werewolves living next door, the story revolves around Alexia getting into trouble, usually through no fault of her own. She has many of the elements of the classic feisty, period-romance heroine. She has a difficult home life, a loopy best friend, more brains than are thought good for her, and something of a self-esteem issue. She’s also what they were thinking of when they invented the term ‘plucky’. Add in the fact that she is soulless, which does interesting things to paranormals when they touch her, and you quite clearly have a recipe for a very interesting story. If you then add Lord Maccon, head werewolf and rather impressive specimen … well. Cherry on the icing on the cake.

I’m not convinced by the term mannerpunk, simply because I think the ‘punk’ suffix may have run out of steam. However, it does get the idea of Soullessacross fairly well. Alexia and her society are indeed mannered: they are exquisitely civil even to their greatest enemy, they know which fork to use, and they change for dinner. Clothes play an important part – who wears what, whether it’s appropriate, what it says about them. Contravening social conventions can lead to a fate worse than death: pariahdom. At the same time, this is a world with parasols knocking people upside the head, the odd melee, and the occasional bloodbath. Not really Jane Austen or Elizabeth Gaskell’s world. Or rather, it is, just with added adrenaline and sharp edges.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects about this novel (alongside the romance and the action, which were great), was the fictionally-serious way in which it approached the whole issue of the paranormal. Victorian England is proverbially the time of science, and experimentation, and theorising. Carriger has taken that and applied it to the presence of vampires and werewolves, so that we get people earnestly discussing whether the paranormal are possessed of a surplus of ‘soul’, whatever that happens to mean, and what the ramifications of such a suggestion could be. And the other characters take this all in their stride. There is no suggestion that such thinking is taboo, nor even particularly odd; perhaps mildly eccentric if you take it too far. In a non-science-heavy book, this is a refreshing way of viewing science and its practitioners.

It occurred to me, at the end, that one way of deepening this story would have been to include a discussion of race, either implicit or explicit, or at least a mention of it. While the slave trade had been banned for some decades by the time this book is set, the keeping of slaves would still have been fresh in people’s minds, and the appearance of a black face on the streets not unusual (although not necessarily welcomed). I can’t imagine that having vampires and werewolves in your society would make it any less likely for the slave trade to have developed. A comparison between the attitudes of normal folk towards paranormal, and those of white folk towards black, could have been most interesting.

I have two, admittedly small, beefs with Soulless. One was that there were a few somewhat off-putting changes in points of view. It’s not that it was unclear who was speaking, or thinking; more that it wasn’t always clear why we’d changed perspective. And it didn’t always happen at a new chapter, either, which threw me. The other thing, and this may relate to my historical bones, was that some of the vocabulary did not feel authentic. Carriger seems to have made such an effort to get the ‘feel’ right – with clothes, and food, and attitudes, and most words – that the odd inauthentic word was disconcerting. But, as noted, these are minor quibbles.

The sequel, Changeless, is already out with book 3, Blameless, due August 31 2010. Soulless contains a teaser for Changeless. Watch this space for the next review.