Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Analyzing Soulless, by Gail Carriger

This is my first foray into the steampunk genre. Middle grade and young adult are my favorite genres, but it's nice to mix in some more sophisticated writing once in a while.

I looked up some definitions of steampunk, and it's sort of a spin off of cyperpunk. Where cyperbunk is science fiction and high-tech and near-future, steampunk sort of goes in the reverse direction - into the past. It is often an alternative history, re-inventing the steam engine era in the 1800's as a high-tech era.

Soulless is more steampunk fantasy than SF. It creates a new version of Victorian England where vampires and werewolves have been accepted into society - even high society. It revolves around two splendid main characters, the supernatural Lord Maccon and the preternatural Miss Tarrabotti (preternatural being a sort of anti-supernatural, or antidote to supernatural powers). The story has a host of outrageous secondary characters, and a mystery involving known vampires disappearing and new vampires appearing who are breaking all of society's rules.

Changeless, the sequel to Soulless, just came out and immediately shot to the best seller lists, which caught my attention. A best seller in an unusual genre like steampunk? I just had to check it out.

What's so special about Soulless that has people racing to buy its sequel as soon as it comes out?

Soulless has three big things going for it: 1) humorous and outrageous characters 2) humorous and witty dialogue and narrative voice 3) a humorous, outrageous and witty twist on Victorian English society.

I am almost positive that fans of Jane Austen will be amused by this book. It's Austen all over again, but in steampunk style, with her witty observations on society and over-the-top characters. For instance, Miss Tarrabotti has is cursed with a mama and two sisters that reminded me very much of Elizabeth Bennett's mother and her two youngest, silliest sisters. She has a best friend with an affinity for horribly unfashionable hats and another friend, a vampire, who is the absolute anti-thesis of Edward Cullen, which should provide millions of jaded Twilight fans with some much needed comic relief (though this is definitely an adult novel; I wish someone had warned me about the s*x scene at the end of the book).

This little snippet give you an idea of Miss Tarrabotti's character:

Many a gentleman had likened his first meeting with her to downing a very strong cognac when one was expecting to imbibe fruit juice - that is to say, startling and apt to leave one with a distinct burning sensation.
The characters alone make this a fun novel, but the combination of great characters and great dialogue/narrative are what puts it up into best-seller status.

Scenes where Miss Tarrabotti and Lord Maccon exchange dialogue reminded me a bit of the excellent repartee between Jane and Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre.

Alexia Tarrabotti: "I did not do anything. You opened the door. I simply fell out of it. A man was attacking me with a wet handkerchief. What else was I supposed to do?"

Lord Maccon could not say much in response to such an outlandish defense. So he merely repelated, "A wet handkerchief?"

Miss Tarrabotti crossed her arms and nodded mutinously. Then, in typical Alexia fashion, she opted to go on the attack. She had no idea what it was about Lord Maccon that always made her so inclined, but she went with the impulse, perhaps encouraged by her Italian blood. "What just a moment now! How did you find me here? Have you been following me?"

Lord Maccon had the good grace to look sheepish - if a werewolf can be said to look sheepish. "I do not trust vampire hives," he grumbled, as though that were an excuse. "I told you not to come. Didn't I tell you not to come? Well, look what happened."

"I would have you know I was perfectly safe in that hive. It was only when I left that things went all" - she waved a hand airily - "squiffy."

"Exactly!" said the earl. "You should go home and stay instead never go out again."

He sounded so serious Alexia laughed.
Most of the dialogue is interspersed with narrative voice, mostly from Miss Tarrabotti's point of view, but with occasional jumps to Maccon's point of view or even a secondary character. You know you are in the hands of an excellent writer that she can manage to pull off these rapid shifts in point of view, sometimes even verging on an omniscient view, without jarring the reader.

I'm not sure exactly, but I think the author is able to pull it off because the narrative voice is so strong: a tone of English propriety that is slightly sarcastic or self-mocking... and funny. So she can afford to give authorial perspective or dip into someone else's perspective occasionally if it adds a bit to the delightfully twisted vision of a proper Victorian lady, such as Alexia's mama "worrying about London being suddenly overrun with werewolves, ghosts, and vampires, and her husband fraternizing with them all."

Here's the opening paragraph of the story, which immediately sets the tone or voice of the book:

Miss Alexia Tarabotti was not enjoying her evening. Private balls were never more than middling amusements for spinsters, and Miss Tarrabotti was not the kind of spinster who could garner even that much pleasure from the event. To put the pudding in the puff: she had retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire.
Such a strong voice obviously forgives, as is apparent in this case, the use of passive tense.

Can anybody recommend any other books that take a well-established tone and deliciously twist it, like Gail Carriger has done?
Click here to see other books that I've tried to analyze for their writing craft.


  1. Love these books! I'm dying to read Blameless. I think Gail Carriger is an interesting author to watch because her author "brand" is very steampunk too (if you check out her website, blog, twitter, or FB page she posts lots of steampunk and Victorian photos and links).

    I imagine Lord Maccon as Gerard Butler and that also makes these fun to read!

  2. This book sounds great. Oh no! My TBR pile just groaned and threatened to fall on my head. ;)

    Thanks for the explanation of steampunk. Until now, I was clueless what it meant.

  3. Steampunk is the new IT genre, and I have to say I think it's well deserved. I apparently need to run out and read Soulless now, but I've already read Leviathan and absolutely adore it. I read an interview with Gail, and she reminds me of Lemony Snicket - in character, all the time.

    Still hankering for some good old fashioned SF in the YA, though. I think it's coming...

  4. LOVE LOVE LOVE this book. I'm reading Changeless right now. Lord Maccon = Yum.

  5. I must read this book! I must!

    Great review. It only makes me more devastated that I haven't read it yet.

    Much praise for venturing into unknown territory though, and then reviewing it! Well done!

  6. Wow! I knew about Steampunk music (I've a cousin who loves it), but didn't realize it was also a genre of writing. Interesting!

    It's great to connect. :)

  7. Great review! I love the cover of the book. I must admit I'm very curious about steampunk, even though it's not really my thing. I may have to get this and check it out!

  8. Ooo. I've been wondering about this series. But now I'll have to read it. Thanks for the warning about sex scene--I can skip it.



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