I read this directly after finishing Tropic of Serpents (yes, I’m being rubbish at updating again – I have now six books to write about to get up to date with current reading) and I have to say I think it suffered for it. They both go for similar pseudo-Victorian tones, but Brennan’s is done a bit more gently and subtly, whereas the humour of Carriger’s necessitates a bit of hyperbole and caricature, which is great… but feels a bit heavy-handed directly after such a brilliant and delicate handling of a similar writing style. And they do have a lot in common. Both follow pseudo-Victorian ladies in a world where one supernatural thing is present. Brennan goes for dragons while Carriger goes for the werewolf/vampire/etc. bundle. Both protagonists are scholars in a world that would prefer they not be… ideally in favour of wifedom and motherhood, possibly with a side order of embroidery should the fancy take them. Both deal with the issues of marriage and women heading into male-dominated areas. But the tone is rather different between the two, and the handling of the woman-makes-her-way theme too.
Soulless follows the adventures of Alexia Tarabotti, noted spinster and dabbler in the paranormal, as she… well… dabbles and gets involved in adventures. I won’t say she solves mysteries, because she’s not exactly a supernatural Marple or anything, but mysteries are unravelled around her and with her aid, so there’s a hint of the detective novel going on, without it being full on that style of thing. It’s also a bit of a bodice-ripper, as there’s a lot of the verbal equivalent of Alexia fanning herself around the love-interest (and then insulting him a lot, because that’s how flirting works… right?) and things that are scandalous by Victorian standards (kissing?!? Good GOD!)… but in quite a self-aware way. I always got the feeling that Carriger was having a bit of a giggle and poking fun at the genre while she’s writing… there’s a wry amusement running through the whole thing, and the protagonist’s no-nonsense voice has a lot of irony in it. It goes a bit far sometimes (there’s an incident with a naked man and a hedgehog that gets brought up a few too many times for it to stay even remotely funny) but on the whole, Carriger gets it right and manages… if not to make me laugh aloud, then crack a smile every now and again. For a book that isn’t designed as pure comedy, that’s definitely a success.
As a protagonist, I think we could do so much worse than Alexia. She’s a “blue-stocking” and a spinster and a nosy bossyboots in the world of demure Victorian ladies, and it’s really pleasing to see her, for the most part, embrace her spinsteritude. The bodice-ripping is pretty integral to the plot, and the book would have really lost something without it, but I almost wish Carriger had gone all the way and just had her stick to spinsterdom and revel in it. That said, the romance-plot is handled really well, and “strong, independent woman” does not turn into mush as soon as a man is involved, which is great. Though some of the intimate observations, while… quite period-appropriate/amusing… are a bit on the cringey side. But I cringe easily, so that may just have been me. Alexia remains forthright and independent throughout, and happily bosses her way through the plot, so you can’t help but cheer her on against the dastardly (and they are definitely dastardly) baddies.
The supporting cast is also pretty excellent. We get to see the werewolf Alpha and Beta (of whom I prefer the quietly competent but also sort of snarky Beta Professor Lyall), several vampires of varying levels of sympathy and some caricatured Victorian disapproving ladies. Oh an amusing best friend with abominable taste in hats. Only the werewolves and one of the vampires really get any fleshing out, and they all pale before the force of Alexia’s personality, but what we do see of them is rather lovely, so I look forward to seeing more.
I haven’t got anything really bad to say about the plot, but it’s not really stellar either. It’s a romp… what my mother would call “a ripping yarn”. There’s nothing special or fancy going on, but it does what it does perfectly well, and is above all a good, fun read. I think it’s this that’s making me hold it up against Brennan’s books and find it wanting. Brennan really does plot beautifully, and write beautifully, and for all that Carriger has made a great, fun, silly book… I don’t think I can consider it the artful wonder that Brennan has achieved. But that’s not what it’s trying to be, so I shouldn’t really be comparing. They are different things… I just read them next to one another and they have sufficient superficial similarities that it’s very hard not to make comparisons.
That being said, I’ll definitely be reading the sequels. Just not immediately after I read Voyage of the Basilisk. The fact that there is an abundance of pseudo-Victorian fantasy female-lead literature in my life is not something I am going to complain about.
All in all, a great read, very fun, very silly, would wholeheartedly recommend… just not a deep and thought-provoking work of art.