It's time for a spot of tea and steampunk: it's the first of Gail Carrier's Parasol Protectorate series, Soulless!
I’ll steam (pardon the pun) through the synopsis. Miss Alexia Tarabotti is a forthright spinster belonging to a frivolous family in alt-Victorian England, whose main concerns is her lack of husband prospects. Her main concerns is that, due to a distressing lack of soul, she is one of the rare few able to neutralise supernatural powers with one touch. In this case, the supernatural powers are vampires and werewolves, as this is a London in which humans (relatively) peacefully co-exist with supernaturals. Only some of those supernaturals are going missing, a terrifying wax-faced man is after Alexia–and there’s this whole business with Lord Maccon, the sexy werewolf Alpha.
I flicked through the goodreads reviews and, whilst there’s a lot of love for the series going around, the few that didn’t take to it were hilariously short-sighted. “Tries to mix up too many genres” was my favourite, as if it’s a heinous crime to stuff some things into your novel that your reader might not expect. It’s not even particularly fair; Soulless is halfway between a penny-dreadful murder mystery and a bodice-ripper, which is absolutely fine as it does both remarkably well.
If you look too hard, there are quite a lot of loose threads in Soulless you could pull at, but it would be a bit uncharitable, and rather like trying to pull threads out of a candy floss–despite your dissassembling, the confection will be just as light and delicious as before. So: the romance is hardly will-they-won’t-they and is firmly on the cards from page one; the conspiracy is likewise easy to figure out purely based on the appearance of characters that serve little other purpose other than a last-act reveal of villainy; and, for a 300-page novel, it’s actually pretty thin on plot.
Thing is, I don’t give damn about any of these things, because what Gail Carriger has in spades is charm and verve–she carries the whole book off with airiness, delight and a nod and a wink. Her central character, Alexia, is the perfect balance of feisty and vulnerable, a tricky balance to pull off, and her love interest Maccon is sufficiently charismatic enough to warrant some of the breathier passages eulogising his body. She also excels in diverting background characters–Lord Akeldama, Floote and Professor Lyall all shine–but judging by Soulless her finest moments are the sex scenes. Or the almost sex-scenes. Or the extended escape sequence in which Alexia must cling to the naked Maccon lest he turn werewolf, which is still basically a sex scene. Every steamy encounter is simultaneously downright hilarious, poking fun at the very genre it’s dancing in, and really pretty hot. Fetch me a werewolf Earl, please.
From a purely technical point of view, Carriger also handles the world-building well, creating a clear and logical picture of both Victorian London and its restrictions and opportunities, and how this has changed with the public lives of werewolves and vampires. There’s plenty of room in this world for exploration too, and I look forward to the second volume immensely, but with some reservations. Soulless seems to trade in the steamy romance section as heavily as it does its steampunk adventure (although the covers don’t quite reflect this) which, if the rest of the genre is anything to go by, should mean she spends the next few books splitting up with Maccon and being involved in tiresome love triangles with other supernatural beings. And, to be honest, I’d rather that wasn’t the case. They’re a great couple–keep them together and send them out on some adventures with a bit of meat on their bones. But keep writing the sex scenes.