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Christopher Koehler's blog about rowing and writing and who knows what else.

Gail Carriger’s Soulless: A Peculiar Sort of Review

  Posted by Christoarpher , 07 May 2020 · 527 views

Gail Carriger published Soulless in 2009, and I find it hard to believe eleven years have passed. In that time, Soulless and its sequels have spawned a mighty empire; the Parasol Protectorate has given rise to the Finishing School series, with its elegant threat—Finishing School: when you want someone finished—and the Custard Protocol books, detailing the adventures of the daughter of Soulless’s protagonist and her companions. Buttressed by short stories, novellas, and novelettes, familiar characters swim in and out of the narratives to the delight of readers and critics alike. Indeed, given the splendid critical reception, one may wonder what I think I can contribute. The answer is simple—I don’t intend to review the book, but only the first few pages, and I will review from a narrow perspective.
Have you ever wondered why you couldn’t put the book down once you picked it up? In the terminology of the craft of writing, the beginning of any book is called the hook. For those who might not be familiar with the term, it’s exactly what it sounds like—the writer has roughly five to ten pages to hook the reader. Miss Carriger makes brilliant use of every one of them, and this aspect of Soulless it worth examining.
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Put simply, in Soulless Miss Carriger crams a wealth of information into the first ten pages without committing the dreaded and tiresome information dump. In the first paragraph alone, the reader learns that the world depicted in the book is one of balls and vampires, and that the protagonist, Miss Alexia Tarabotti is a spinster by her culture’s reckoning. Furthermore, Alexia has retreated from such a ball to the library, so we know she’s prefers books to her class’s pastimes.
Miss Carriger also lets us know that the protagonist may be on the exotic side for Victorian London, for her name is not a typically English one. Of course, if you’ve read the series you know this to be true, for Alexia makes much of it and much is made of it. But for now, on the first page, this is merely a hint.
Conceptually, this is a lot to take in. From the back of the book, we already know it’s a steampunk novel set in another Victorian London. So Alexia is a well-off spinster who doesn’t like the entertainment of her class and HELLO there’s a vampire in the library.
That’s in one paragraph, dear readers.
The second paragraph is one line, and consists of Alexia glaring at the vampire.
She doesn’t shriek, she glares. From that, it’s obvious that the supernatural is, if not common, then not unexpected. Two paragraphs in, and Miss Carriger has conveyed a wealth of information without trying to explain too much—why do vampires exist and why isn’t Alexia more concerned? Where do vampires come from? We don’t need to know that on the first page and Miss Carriger doesn’t burden us with it, but I remember burning curiosity when I first read it. I wanted those answers and the only way to get them was to turn the page.
By the third paragraph on the first page, we learn that although Alexia is put out by the vampire’s presence, the vampire was mightily glad to see her. Alexia is certainly aware of it as she is without a chaperone and has worn a low-necked gown.
We’re provided with more information about Alexia’s culture, a further refinement of the information presented in the first paragraph: Alexia is a part of a cultural stratum of balls and, it would appear, house parties, and she should’ve been chaperoned but was not. So it’s a version of Victorian London different enough to host vampires but not so different from our own that a woman, even a spinster, should have been on her own unescorted. And we haven’t reached the end of the first page.
My educational background is in cultural studies. I was trained to read for things like this. I expect that some, even many, readers picked up on this consciously, but others may not have. Nonetheless, on some level, I suspect readers have a definite sense of the uncanny and want more more more.
By the fourth paragraph—remember we’re still on the first page—Miss Carriger is ready to turn the screw. She reveals Alexia’s most salient characteristic, one that in some ways defines the entire series. Alexia was born without a soul. In short order, we’re informed that any good vampire should know that she’s to be avoided. Significantly, we don’t know what that means, but clearly, it’s something dire, at least for vampires.
Are you hooked yet?
By the first full paragraph on the second page the action heats up further. While Alexia’s soulless state may make her something to avoid, the vampire comes at her. The vampire touches her and—he’s mortal!
We don’t know the how of it or the why of it—again, Miss Carriger doesn’t prematurely burden us with explanations—but somehow Alexia has just turned the supernatural to the merely human. We also know that she didn’t do anything to bring the change about. It was a passive miracle. The predator touched her and the change happened. That’s quite a lot of information to convey. Alexia doesn’t appear to be a magic-user—if there are vampires, why can’t there be magic—and she didn’t have to invoke this power of hers.
The second paragraph of the second page clues us in. Alexia knew it would happen. In fact, it appears that it’s an everyday thing for the soulless. The soulless cancel out the supernatural. We do not yet know just how rare the soulless are. Importantly for the sake of the reader, this isn’t the odd part of what just happened. No, the really strange part of what just transpired was that the vampire didn’t appear to know that there was one of the soulless in London.
So we’re not done with the second page, and we know that the book takes place in an alternate Victorian London where the supernatural exist and that there exists a class of being who can passively neutralize them at the merest touch. Furthermore, our protagonist, as she intimates, is nothing more than the standard edition English prig, and happens to be one of that class.
That’s a lot of information in less than two pages, and as a writer myself, I’m quite impressed.
By the last paragraph of the second page, the vampire’s trying again. Alexia’s outraged, but the source of her outrage isn’t the attempt but the violation of standards of etiquette. They have not, after all, been introduced. This was our warning that we’re about to plunge into a manners….if not comedy, than a book much obsessed with propriety. It is set, after all, in the Victorian era.
The first paragraph on the third page reveals more tidbits. Alexia has never been bitten despite her acquaintance with a few vampires. She is friends with a particular aristocrat who apparently knows everyone. The author does not explain the significance of this acquaintance. Is it important? Only time will tell.
Then the action picks up again as our protagonist defends herself and we are introduced to her taste for parasols. We also learn that while it’s a bit déclassé to carry one indoors, Alexia doesn’t care because it’s also a weapon, weighted with buckshot in its silver tip. Readers know that this is foreshadowing, although of course in the moment the buckshot-weighted parasol produces a satisfying thump that knocks the vampire back.
Vampires can also feel pain, another revelation about the supernatural slipped in without comment at the top of page four. Then Alexia hits him between the legs with that parasol and, indeed, vampires can feel degrees of pain. Alexia may be a proper English young lady—so her culture defines spinster at a young age—and half Italian, she’s nevertheless learned a trick or two from wide reading that is not, strictly speaking, the sort of reading women of quality ought to engage in.
Again, Miss Carriger has subtly larded her prose with things the reader should know about the protagonist without calling attention to it—Alexia’s considered a spinster at a young age, she takes exercise that has made her atypically strong, she knows where to hit a man to make it hurt, and the supernatural feel pain. Significantly, she carries a weight parasol and knows how to use it as a weapon.
This why we keep turning the page.
But back to the action. Alexia may not know many vampires, but she knows how to kill one, because she pulls a long, wooden hair stick out of her coiffure and stabs him with it. Sure, she blushes a very Victorian blush at opening a man’s shirt, but she doesn’t scruple against touching him to render him mortal, or interrogating him to discover that, indeed, he has no idea what the soulless are, and then, after a tussle in which the vampire tries yet again to bite her, Alexia drives the hair stick in with that parasol.
Miss Carriger uses the vampire’s ignorance—which comes back into play much later—to fill in a few blanks for the reader. Vampires are not the only supernatural creatures in this world, for there are also werewolves and ghosts, all of whom had an abundance of soul in their mortal lives. Most know of the exist of the soulless, and all of them fall under the purview of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR), a division of Her Majesty’s Civil Service. BUR refers to Alexia’s kind as preternatural, and her kind had once hunted the supernatural.
After killing the vampire, Alexia intended to make her escape without anyone any the wiser, but she’s interrupted and resorts to feigning unconsciousness, even enduring the application of smelling salts.
Then Miss Carriger cranks up the drama again, because who else happens to be in attendance at this ball but Conall Maccon, the Early of Woolsey, werewolf head of BUR, and his beta, Professor Lyall? Lord Maccon is gruff, rough, full of bluster, and worst of all, Scottish. Professor Lyall is quiet, calm, and gets things done. Best of all, there is history between Lord Maccon and Alexia to ratchet up the dramatic and, Miss Carriger hints, the romantic tension. Alexia is chagrined to see Lord Maccon, even though she blushes ever so slightly at the sight of the relentlessly male Lord Maccon, and relieved to see the professor.
It’s a lot to fit into ten pages and none of us had a chance. The hook in Soulless gets my vote for the best in fantasy and science fiction because it contains the entire the novel. It just takes a few hundred pages to work out the details.
Soulless also contains one of my favorite exchanges ever:
The Earl of Woolsey glared at her. “Cheap clothing is no excuse for killing a man.”
“Mmm, that’s what you say.”
Christopher Koehler


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