For some reason, I thought I'd already read something by Gail Carriger--the name just sounds so familiar. But scrolling through her titles, that doesn't seem to be the case; Soulless is definitely the first book of hers to come across my shelves. While it had been on my to-read list for a while, due to some good ratings from friends, I ended up getting around to it because it was the September buddy read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers group.
Soulless was a weird book to me, because it was another of those titles that had all the things I typically like, but when looked at as a whole it didn't amaze me. What are those things I like? Romance. Paranormal fantasy. Victorian steampunk settings. All of these things are tropes that I typically gush over, and they were all combined here. In Victorian England, Alexia Tarabotti is soulless, AKA a preternatural--her touch nullifies the abilities and supernatural-ness of, well, supernaturals, the main two varieties being werewolves and vampires. (Ghosts are also included as supernaturals but we don't actually see any in this book.) While supernaturals are known the world over, England seems to be unique in the way that they have been integrated into society. For example, in the United States, supernaturals are executed if they're found out. Alexia inherited her condition from her Italian father, but her mother and family don't know about. Who does know about it Lord Maccon, head of BUR. I have no idea what BUR stands for. I'm not sure it was ever explained. But it's a sort of agency that helps to govern the supernatural community. Lord Maccon (which, honestly, I kept reading as Lord Bacon) is also a werewolf. Oh, and he has the hots for Alexia, even though they always argue and there was apparently a detrimental incident with a hedgehog.
The book starts out with Alexia encountering a very strange vampire and killing him, opening the door to a whole mystery involving the disappearances of supernaturals and someone hunting Alexia. And of course, her courtship by Lord Maccon. But here's the thing: this didn't feel like a balanced book. It felt like the second halves of two separate books. The paranormal mystery component came across as rushed, and I felt like we only had the second half of the romance--because for all Alexia and Maccon snipe at each other and profess to not liking each other, they certainly end up making out pretty quickly. I wish that their earlier interactions--like the hedgehog incident--had been included, because I think that would have really helped to build the romance in a better way. As it was, it just felt a bit disconnected, and I also never felt like it integrated in a good way with the mystery plot. This book also would have benefited from a few chapters entirely from Maccon's point of view to help flesh out BOTH sides of the plot. Because this fleshing-out, in all aspects, never happened, it really feels like this is just the facade of a story, instead of the story itself...which, considering this book is about 360 pages long, seems rather odd.
The other thing that bothered me was the "soulless" thing itself, because there is absolutely nothing to indicate that Alexia doesn't have a soul. Everyone seems to think that just because she's logical and keeps her head about her, that means she's soulless. Oh, and the whole neutralizing touch thing. But the thinking here just didn't make sense to me--Alexia can clearly think and feel and possesses her own free will, so why wouldn't she have a soul? I thought this was going to come out more as a realization in the end, that she's not soulless at all, but it didn't. Consequently, the whole book rests upon what is, ultimately, some flimsy thinking, and it totters precariously on its perch.
I did like the bantering between Alexia and Maccon, and I liked the writing in general. It was snarky and charming. I've seen a few people mention they thought less time could have been spent describing what people where wearing, and while I can see the point there--it does take up a significant amount of page time that I think probably could have been used for plot and character development--I rather liked it. It helps the whole book to read as a sort of lengthy gossip column, which I think is an interesting way of looking at a story. I'm not sure if that was intentional or not, though. I think Carriger has an interesting world here, and she could do a lot with it...but I'm not sure that she accomplished it in this particular book.
2.5 stars out of 5. This had some things I liked but I think the flaws outweighed them, and I'm not really intrigued enough to read the rest of the series.