I was tempted to start this review by saying if you are only going to read one Victorian-era romantic comedy mystery involving werewolves, vampires, and ghosts, make it Soulless. That seemed far too damning with faint praise, however, so let me start again.
One thing that romance novels and Steampunk or Gaslamp Fantasy novels have in common is that they tend to take themselves so darn seriously. This strikes me as a mistake. Let’s face it: whether you’re reading the umpteenth variation on the romance theme, or the latest swashbuckling adventure with airships and goggles, it’s supposed to be fun. This isn’t A Reliable Wife. Gail Carriger must have had the same thought, because Soulless is a wicked send-up of both genres – a Gaslamp Romance by way of P.G. Wodehouse.
In this version of Victorian London, various “supernaturals,” including vampires and werewolves, are assimilated into society and, indeed, help Queen Victoria rule the nation. (Other countries, such as the United States, have much less enlightened views about the supernaturals.) Each group has its own strict hierarchy and rules, and the Bureau of Unnatural Registry monitors their activities.
Miss Alexia Tarabotti is the soulless title character, a spinster in her mid-twenties, bright, intellectually curious, and adventurous, living with her mother, stepfather, and two step-sisters. She inherited this condition from her late father and it gives her the ability to nullify the power of any supernatural who is in physical contact with her: vampires lose their fangs, and werewolves lose their large teeth, physical strength, and werewolf form. Though her condition is rare, and kept from the general human population, supernaturals are taught about Alexia and her kind.
The story opens when Alexia ventures away from a social gathering into the library in search of food. She is confronted by a vampire who rudely attempts to bite her without so much as a formal introduction, much less permission, and she accidentally kills him with the parasol she so often carries with her. Lord Maccon, the Alpha werewolf of the London pack and a member of the BUR, arrives to investigate this episode. He and Alexia have had an uneasy relationship for some time. Who was the rogue vampire? Why are supernaturals both appearing and disappearing? And why are sinister forces determined to kidnap Alexia?
These questions are all resolved by the end of the book, but they seem almost an afterthought to the relationship between Lord Maccon and Alexia. As in all romance novels, the two start off disliking one another immensely, and their continued bickering during the course of the book is mere prelude to the deep kisses and heaving breasts we all know will soon come. Without humor, this would be unbearable. (Some might think it unbearable even with humor; the genre is not to all tastes.) The sendup of Victorian society is hilarious. I found some of the kiss/nibble/sigh scenes a little repetitious, and would have preferred a little more meat on the bones of the plot, but, all in all, an amusing romp.