My friend, sister (well, by mutual agreement; who says you can’t pick your family?), and future co-author (next year) Elizabeth, of the more-popular-than-mine blogs Elenatintil and Confessions of a Seamstress, has been resisting one of my recommendations. Doctor Who? Check. X-Men? Check. David Eddings’ The Belgariad? Check. Firefly? Shiny! Girl Genius? SCIENCE!

But even as our other friends read more and more of The Dresden Files, she has steadfastly (if quietly) demurred. On Saturday, her latest response was “Maybe someday. But you have to read The Parasol Protectorate first.”

Due to my tendency to pay attention to Howard Tayler’s reviews, Gail Carriger’s Soulless (the first novel in the series) was already on my reading list. I decided to bump it to the top and immediately purchased the ebook from Amazon. Challenge accepted, sister dear! Challenge accepted.

Fortunately, it’s an entertaining book. I was running around a lot this weekend, so I put Whispersync into practice for the first time. In case you don’t know, it’s where I can have both the audiobook and the ebook keep track of where I last stopped, so that one picks up where the other left off. I read much faster than a narrator, but Emily Gray is excellent to listen to and has a wonderfully subtle touch with accents — even American, which will normally bug me (having only heard three British actors who can do this to my complete satisfaction; I am of course certain that plenty of my fellow accent-snobs across the pond will say the same thing about our fake British actors). Emily Gray puts a wonderful spin on the dry humor in the book, and I was driven to giggles in my car at several points. And I do not giggle. It is a very unmanly practice.

But what about the story? As I normally do with reviews of things I like, I’ll start with the bad stuff first.

The first chapter annoyed me quite a bit. I have a thing about infodumping, particularly in the first chapter, and this made me wince even with the excellent British humor. We find out very quickly just what being “soulless” means, but it’s just dumped out unceremoniously. There was no real need to have everything so quickly, particularly when the author was already being coy with other details. Effectively, Gail Carriger answered several questions before a reader had any chance to ask them. Asking questions is part of how a reader gets hooked.

I suppose I should say, in as non-spoiler a way as I can, that the villain was obvious from the start. The moment a certain name popped up in a certain scene, I knew who was behind things. However, it did not detract from plot; I don’t think Carriger expected her readers, at least those paying attention, to miss it. There was no grand reveal; it just happens, and our heroine was almost as unsurprised as I was.

A minor annoyance, mostly in the first fifth of the book, was the floating perspective. While fairly common in Regency and Victorian literature, it’s usually a sign of poor writing today; it got my editor hackles up a bit, and I had to keep reminding myself that Carriger was attempting to imitate — rather skillfully, actually — a much older style. This was undermined quite a bit by the occasional too-modern phrase, as well as by the inclusion of things that would never have been published in 19th-century literature — though the humor made up for much of it.

Some of that humor, however, limits who I can recommend this book to. Many of my friends wouldn’t bat an eye at overt sexual humor; others would be shocked and scandalized. It’s a difficult subject to do well, and Carriger manages to meld it with Victorian attitudes, character personalities, and period speech in such a way to make it utterly delightful. For me, the subject matter isn’t shocking at all; but putting it in the period, in those speech patterns, made it both shocking and laugh-out-loud hilarious at the same time.

I also liked the world described in the series. The worldbuilding intrigued me; aside from that initial infodumping, it feels like there is much more to explore in the later books. I’m writing this review without even reading the blurb for the next book, but I liked the hints (or more precisely, the lacks) that we have in Soulless. There’s a lot of room to branch out from here. Describing the Americans as “superstitious” and the hints that the Catholic Church oppresses supernatural folk (and that this may have been the reason for the Anglican split in this history) also make me curious.

So what is a “soulless,” you might ask? Since it’s given in the first few pages, I see no problem explaining things here. The modern scientific age (as described in the book) has a prevailing theory about how ghosts, vampires, and werewolves come about: an excess of soul, a part of the person that just refuses to die. These three types of beings form the supernaturals; but there’s another type out there, which (for some unexplained reason) is kept secret from “daylight folk,” or normal humans: a person born with the ability to cancel supernatural abilities with a touch. Since the theory is that supernaturals have “more” soul than most, these “preternaturals” must have a complete lack of soul.

Being informed at age six that one does not have a soul, as you might imagine, has a distinct effect on one’s world-view. Alexia Tarabotti, aside from also being plain of face and half-Italian, has allowed this knowledge to affect her self-image without completely falling into depression. It makes for a rather interesting character — one filled with self-doubt, but also self-determined and willing to overstep bounds. It’s a contradiction made all the more delightful by how natural it feels.

I recommend this book for fans of both fantasy and Jane Austen (so long as you aren’t easily-scandalized), the Girl Genius graphic novel series, or just steampunk in general. It’s an excellent, fast-paced read, with excellent characterization and highly entertaining dialog.

Oh, and Elizabeth . . . your turn’s coming soon. 😉