Soulless, Gail Carriger

Orbit, 2009, 365 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-316-05663-2

Consider, if you will, the notion that reading fiction is like living in a big city.  Each genre and subgenre maps out to a neighbourhood where people choose to live, visit or avoid.  Everyone, sooner or later, goes downtown to have a look at the bestsellers.  The classics make up most of the old city near the docks.  Award-winning literary fiction holds the classy neighbourhood.  Genres make up most of the suburbs.  And while most people have their own habits and favourite haunts, it happens from time to time that some readers take a turn into unfamiliar territory and so find themselves in unusual neighbourhoods.

So it is that I ended up taking a walk down a strange alley in reading Gail Carriger’s Soulless, the first volume in a series blending elements of Victorian science-fiction, supernatural romance, fantasies of manner, gentle humour and suspenseful adventure.  As the novel begins, spinster heroine Alexis Tarabotti gets involved in a conflict between the vampires and werewolves living in London.  In her world, both types of creatures are commonly accepted even as Alexia herself is regarded with suspicion as she is said to have no soul, granting her a few special powers over unnatural creatures.  As the plot thickens, Alexia gets to know a darkly handsome vampire, uncover a plot against the Empire and do the things that common steampunk romance heroines are expected to do.

Being neither an ardent fan of steampunk, Victorian-era comedies of manner, urban fantasy or supernatural romances, I found myself far from my comfort zones in reading Soulless.  Dawdling down the streets of paranormal romance, I couldn’t help but notice and be left unconvinced by the unsubtle shape of the plot, the manufactured oppression of the heroine, the unadventurous re-use of familiar genre elements and the forced humour.  I shouldn’t have been surprised: Every genre neighbourhood operates according to its own broadly-accepted set of rules, leaving bewildered outsiders wondering how, exactly, did such flimsy assumptions become accepted part of the scenery.

It doesn’t take much more than this lack of familiarity to foster a sense of irritation and alienation.  I seldom notice stylistic tics, but by the third chapter I was ready to climb up the walls as the narration itself kept switching back and forth between “Alexia” and “Miss Tarabotti” in designating the protagonist.  Soulless keeps trying to jam modern prose into a Victorian framework, and the results either feel grotesque or half-hearted, depending on your mood of the moment.  By the time the mad scientists are uncovered, the fantastic machines have been deactivated and the empire has been saved, the impression left is one of insubstantiality –a trifle of a novel, unambitious and solely meant to entertain.

Still: Even without Bookscan numbers, there are at least three good hints that Soulless has done exceptionally well commercially (Sixth printing; hundreds of reviews on Amazon; “New York Times bestseller” status from the second novel onward) and that, clearly, a lot of people are enjoying these books.

Indeed, looking around Soulless’s neighbourhood, it’s obvious that this is a popular part of Fiction-town: There’s a lot of foot traffic and discussion, a growing body of work, plenty of marketing and signs that the area is booming.  For reviewers from other part of town, it’s a gentle clue that paranormal romance, or urban fantasy, or low-grade steampunk, or whatever it’s called, is fulfilling a number of expectations for many people… and that those who are unwilling or unable to accept the rules of subgenre may want to leave it alone and visit other areas of Fiction City.

So, as this reviewer leaves the neighbourhood behind, it’s hard not to notice that it seems like a perfectly welcoming place, and even a comfortable one for its residents.  I may not read any of Soulless’ sequels any time soon, but I appreciate that they exist… and I hope they’ll take good care of their part of Fiction-city.  I may not belong here, but other readers do, and they deserve the best they can get for their own tastes.

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