Gail Carriger, Soulless: An Alexia Tarabotti Novel

Posted by Aspasia Stephanou on February 21, 2010 in Reviews tagged with , , ,

Gail Carriger’s Soulless: An Alexia Tarabotti Novel

Reviewed by Aspasia Stephanou, University of Stirling

Gail Carriger, the self-acclaimed ‘tea-obsessed author of comic, historical, steampunk, urbane fantasy’ delivers with humour and elegance. Her ‘afternoonified’ account of nineteenth-century steampunk London, where werewolves and vampires are assimilated members of society among elegant ladies who stroll the streets with parasols and frilly dresses while admiring the technological glory of Henri Giffard’s dirigibles. With vampire-style paleness in vogue, Alexia Tarabotti, a half-Italian, dark, soulless spinster is labouring under a great many tribulations. Attacked by a vampire that has no manners during an evening ball, Alexia joins forces with Lord Conall Maccon, the fourth Earl of Woolsey, who is an agent of Queen Victoria’s Shadow Parliament. The ill-mannered Maccon, a Scottish werewolf, and Alexia attempt to discover why the vampire did not behave according to established etiquette. Armed with her brass parasol “entirely of her own devising: a black frilly confection with purple satin pansies sewn about, brass hardware, and buckshot in its silver tip” (3) which she carried with her in every occasion, Alexia enters Countess Nadasdy’s vampire hive only to find out that other vampires are mysteriously appearing from nowhere, and that this kind of miraculous vampire birth without a queen vampire is an unprecedented event.

Soulless is Carriger’s first novel, a witty and playful narrative that combines gothic monsters and steampunk paraphernalia with frolicsome adventures. Vampires and werewolves are supernatural beings with an excess of soul, while Alexia is a preternatural without soul, able to neutralize supernatural abilities. The vampires are organized into hives and the werewolves into packs, both distinguished by order and rules. The hives consist of their vampire queens, their superior position deriving from the fact that they are the only ones that can achieve vampire metamorphosis. Thus no vampire is born outside a hive. Drones or clavigers were “vampire companions, servants or caretakers who were paid with the possibility of eventually becoming immortal themselves” (42).
Steampunk devices are also an important aspect of the novel: the vampire Lord Akeldama reveals to Alexia a small spiky device that would create a screaming sound if somebody from a distance tried to listen in with an eavesdropping device.

It looked like two tuning forks sunk into a faceted crystal. He flicked the first fork with
his thumbnail, waited a moment, and then flicked the second. The two made a
dissonant, low-pitched strumming sound, like the hum of two different kinds of bee
arguing, that seemed to be amplified by the crystal (49).

The carriage that the American scientist Mr. MacDougall was driving “included a crank-operated water-boiling canteen for tea on-the-go, a long-distance monocular optical viewing device for the better appreciation of scenery, and even a small steam engine linked to a complex hydraulic system” (136).

Interesting are also the experiments of the Hypocras Club which captured supernatural beings in order to analyze their blood, understand their supernatural functions and eliminate them. Mr. MacDougall believed that the supernatural was a blood-borne disease or a special organ while the rest of the Hypocras Club held the idea that metamorphosis was the result of electricity or aetheromagnetic fields. The scientists, as Alexia discovers, have also created homunculi simulacra, synthetic creatures or alchemical artificial men. These automata, Alexia presumes were the result of dastardly science, of a small aetheromagnetic or steam engine. In the labyrinthine, white laboratories of the club Alexia noticed complex machinery steam-powered for the monstrous examination of supernatural beings:

There were great pumping bellows with enormous gears and coils to facilitate up-and-
down motion. There were shiny engines, smaller than hatboxes, with overly organic
curves that were, in their way, more terrifying than the larger contraption. They all,
regardless of size, boasted a brass octopus, riveted somewhere about their casings. The
contrast of engine and invertebrate was oddly sinister (271).

In the exsanguination chamber she found her vampire friend crucified through both hands and feet with wooden stakes bolted into a platform. A long metal tube which ran into a mechanical steam-driven contraption, was inserted in his arm while another tube was hooked into another body next to the vampire. The machine with its suckerlike tubes was “more hungry than any vampire” she had ever seen (305).

After the transferring of blood from the vampire into the life-less body of a human, the scientists hooked another machine-“a small engine of some kind, all gears and cogs. At its heart was a glass jar with metal plates at each end” (307)-into the other one with the tubes. Electricity ran through the tube into Lord Akeldama’s body and the human subject next to him was suddenly conscious. With technology the mad scientists were able to create vampires through the transferring of blood-soul of another vampire.
For the Hypocras Club the supernatural pose a major threat. Their experiments would offer knowledge of the vampires’ condition and their soul in order to control them. In MacDougall’s explanation of the supernatural danger against the commonwealth, one feels an uncanny repetition of the cold war anti-communist language and the fear of monsters and aliens in 1950s films. He says to Alexia,

They permeate our government and our defences, but they are not motivated to protect
the best interest of the fully human species. They are only concerned with advancing
their own agenda! We believe that agenda to be world domination at the very least. Our
goal is mobilization of research in order to secure the homeland from supernaturtal
attack and covert infiltration (270).

However Alexia and her Scottish werewolf succeed in terminating the vampiric machinations of the scientists, while admitting their romantic interests for each other. Alexia finally with prodigious daring calls Lord Maccon my love and in response the Earl answers: “Your love?”
Alexia: “Well, you are a werewolf, Scottish, naked, and covered in blood, and I am still holding your hand” (318).

(Alexia’s adventures continue in her second novel Changeless, released in March 2010.

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