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I make no bones about loving the urban fantasy genre which so beautifully marries twenty-first century realism with total fantasy in such a way that the paranormal seems very prosaic and normal. The subject matter of many urban fantasies can be a little dark and it's good to take a break from it once in a while with something altogether lighter. Although 'Soulless', which is the first novel in the Parasol Protectorate series, wasn't quite what I was looking for, it popped up in my Amazon recommendations and the reviews prompted me to take a punt on it.
As if being half-Italian, a spinster and having no soul weren't enough, Miss Alexia Tarabotti has been attacked by a vampire and she's accidentally killed him! Things then go from bad to worse as far as Alexia is concerned because Lord Maccon, an alpha werewolf and head of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR) has been sent to investigate and whenever he and Alexia lock horns, matters tend to get a little heated. The vampire Alexia has killed turns out to be unregistered to any of the vampire hives and known vampires are disappearing to be replaced by these unknown ones. Lord Maccon, ably assisted by Alexia and assorted others, set about investigating just who or what is behind these strange events.
I didn't really know what to expect from this book when I began to read it but what I found was a curious mish-mash of Victorian adventure, a la Jules Verne, and urban fantasy with a big dollop of romance thrown in for good measure. Curious it may be, and a mish-mash certainly, but it was highly entertaining and original in concept and I simply couldn't put it down.
This book was recommended to me by Amazon because I buy and read urban fantasy. Despite having werewolf and vampire characters, this is much more steampunk than urban fantasy. It's certainly far more divorced from reality and is almost akin to a comic book story only here the words paint the pictures. It has that same style of dialogue as a comic book, with lots of humorous asides which are quite often tongue-in-cheek. For instance, when Lord Maccon and Alexia find themselves locked in a prison cell together and things are becoming somewhat amorous between them, Alexia says 'This has got to stop .... Any moment now, evil scientists may come charging in.' I think that gives some hint as to the kind of read this is.
This may be a fantasy but the author stays true throughout to the Victorian period in respect of manners, dress and to a lesser extent, scientific progress. Most of the infernal machines are steam driven with electricity being a new-fangled invention not yet universally known or understood. Alexia Tarabotti, herself, is a well brought up Victorian lady but with a great deal of spirit and ingenuity in her make-up. For those who've read the Amelia Peabody novels, Alexia is a lady cut from the same cloth: a Victorian lady with twenty-first century proclivities. She regards herself as plain, but really she's far more attractive than she gives herself credit for. It's simply that she isn't blonde, pretty and silly like her step-sisters and what Alexia lacks in blondeness, she more than makes up for with her personality which is forceful to say the least. Alexia has other attributes, however, she's a preternatural, a soulless being with the ability to return werewolves and vampires to their human state merely through her touch. This makes her such a rarity that her services are not only valued by the Bureau of Unnatural Registry but also by anyone with villainous intent and there are plenty of them just itching to get hold of the intrepid Miss Tarabotti.
Her bête noire, literally, because he's a werewolf, is the delectable, though slightly rough and ready Lord Connal Maccon, the Earl of Woolsey who is suffering under the twin disadvantages of not only being a werewolf but Scottish to boot. (This is the author's opinion and not any prejudice on my part, I hasten to add.) In a nutshell, Lord Maccon is sex on legs, whether it be two or four of them. He's an alpha so, of course, he's rude, arrogant and totally devastatingly attractive and he drives Alexia nuts. She thinks she dislikes him intensely but it's pretty obvious that isn't the case. But does Lord Maccon reciprocate those feelings? Alexia can't believe he does. There are elements to the character of Lord Maccon which aren't a million miles from Sherlock Holmes, though Maccon is a much more attractive and far less patronising version. He even has a Watsonesque sidekick in his second-in-command, Professor Lyall.
The main plot is intriguing enough to keep the pace fast and entertaining and me turning the pages. The inventions are all of the Heath Robinson variety that might have graced the pages of a Jules Verne or H G Wells novel, mostly steam-driven, mechanical or fiendishly electrical, of course. As for the secondary characters, they were all as one would expect from a novel of this type. The villains were deliberately stereotypical and could almost be seen twirling their moustaches to emphasise their villainy and the vampires, with the exception of the delightlfully camp Lord Akeldama, were all suitably pale skinned and bloodthirsty.
Gail Carriger has created a totally captivating world here filled with wit and humour of the kind which brings a smile to the face rather than being laugh-out-loud. There are a few little things which tended to throw me out of the story every so often, however. As an American, albeit one born to an ex-pat Brit, the author sometimes misnames things: a porch becomes a stoop, for instance, and Alexia's stepfather is a Squire though it's plain the author has no idea that a squire might appear in the aristocratic heirarchy. Also Alexia and co. use the word 'gotten' far more than any Victorian ever would have done, which is probably never. Another little quibble I had was the way Connal kept getting amorous with Alexia at the most inappropriate moments, as evidenced by the quote at the beginning of this review, but I suppose that could be put down to his having an animal nature, though it seemed a bit unnecessary to me and broke the flow of the story.
All in all, this was a highly entertaining piece of hokum and well worth the £4.47 it currently costs from Amazon. (It's also available second hand from 47p or in Kindle format for £4.99.) I enjoyed this book enough to buy the next in the series and if Miss Alexia Tarabotti and Lord Maccon continue on their present form, I'll be in for another great read.
The Parasol Protectorate series: