Those of you who were at World Fantasy 2009 in San José will probably remember the Best Con Party Ever, run by Gail Carriger and Orbit for Gail’s debut novel, Soulless [buy isbn=”9780316056632″]. Given the huge amount of effort that Gail and her friends put in to cooking for the party, I felt obliged to buy a copy of her book, and indeed read it. After all, it seemed like Gail was a Very Fun Person, and that reading her book might prove highly enjoyable.
Well, dear reader, I have to begin with a caution, because this book contains material that may be injurious to persons of a nervous disposition. It is a well known fact amongst the literary community that persons of the more delicate male sex are liable to suffer spasms, palpitations, fainting and, in extreme cases, nausea, if asked to read books whose subject matter touches on romance. Thus, I fear, is the nature of Ms. Carriger’s novel.
It does, of course, also include vampires, werewolves, ghosts and fiendish plots involving the self same beings. It even, dare I say it, has mention of tentacles, though not in any great quantity. But romance there is aplenty. Our heroine, Miss Alexia Tarabotti. Is a spinster of London town whose part-Italian ancestry has gifted her with a spirited disposition, a passion for learning, a proud Roman nose, and a tanned complexion, all of which render her entirely unsuitable for matrimony. Her mother and two English-rose step-sisters despair of ever finding a man desperate enough to take her off their hands.
Nevertheless, Alexia has attracted the attention of Lord Conall Maccon, a somewhat uncouth personage of Scottish descent who is, nevertheless, extremely wealthy. Lord Maccon happens to be the head of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, a Civil Service organization dedicated to keeping track of supernatural persons on behalf of Her Majesty’s government. His Lordship is also the Alpha Male of the London werewolf pack. The combination of Miss Tarabotti’s spirited disposition and Lord Maccon’s wolfish Alphaness results in a considerable amount of conflict, disagreement and argument of exactly the type necessary in romance novels for the two participants to eventually fall madly in love with each other, even though neither is likely to admit it to themselves, let alone to anyone else.
Despite Miss Carriger being part-British herself, the book does suffer a little from what I might call Theme Park Britain Syndrome. Also the veneer of Britishness does drop from time to time. Scottish and werewolf or no, I simply cannot imagine a noble gentleman of the Victorian era using the word, “Gee”. My primary problem with the book, however, was that the mention of a large, hairy Scotsman with a very short temper does not bring to mind the image of a romantic hero such as Mr. Sean Connery, or even Mr. David Coulthard, but rather that of Mr. Gordon Brown. This, I can assure you, does nothing for my enjoyment of those parts of the book that deal with the more physical side of romantic encounters.
Fortunately the novel is also possessed of an engaging plot and a considerable amount of good humor. Much of this is supplied by the inordinately camp personage of the vampire, Lord Akeldama, and his coterie of exceptionally pretty young gentleman companions. This reminds me that books that treat of supernatural beings often do so as a coded reference for behaviors that are frowned upon in polite society. It is a measure of how sadly diminished America’s reputation has become in the eyes of its residents that a novel can hold up Victorian London as a model of social tolerance and contrast it with the vicious bigotry of the religion-obsessed colonials. Thankfully Miss Carriger, who is after all part-British, recognizes that we too can produce mouth-frothing loonies of a dangerous disposition. Here is a passage involving the novel’s principal bad guy:
He became impassioned, his tone the high-voiced raving of a fanatic. “They permeate our government and our defenses, but they are not motivated to protect the best interests of the fully human species. They are only concerned with advancing their own agenda! We believe that agenda to be world domination at the very least.”
See, they have an Agenda. And they are intent on imposing a New World Order. They are probably in favor of taxes on the importation of tea to the colonies as well. Wherever will it stop?
So, should you happen to be someone who is capable of reading a romance novel without resorting to smelling salts, and who does not think that anyone whose behavior or tastes are different from yours is plotting to destroy life as we know it and establish world domination, I recommend Miss Alexia Tarabotti as a source of light relief from the cares of the everyday world. She is also very capable with a parasol.