I entered the world of Alexia Tarabotti with low expectations. The cover of Soulless looks like my five-year-old niece pieced it together on photoshop. And the series name - The Parasol Protectorate - did nothing to attract me. (An aside: why Parasol Protectorate anyway? Sure, Alexia's parasol is a beloved accessory and manages to gouge a couple of misbehaving men in the soft bits, but an organized "protectorate"? Maybe that comes later?)
Then I started reading. The first chapters did little to prove my initial impressions wrong. Carriger's repeated mention of Alexia's "ample bosom" and "voluptuous curves" made me wince. Was this series going to go the route of titillating fan fiction with little exploration of character? Thankfully, the answer was for the most part no. Sure, Carriger flirts with the lower brow at times; however, she doesn't stay in the realm of fan fiction very long. In the end, Soulless offers an interesting critique of societal norms, gender roles, pack dynamics, and scientific ethics. I enjoyed the read very much.
I found the evolving relationship between Alexia and Lord Maccon interesting. Victorian societal norms clash with pack dynamics and animal instinct. While Victorian society says no to a woman being aggressive in pursuit of a man, pack dynamics require that Alexia make some moves toward Lord Maccon. I laughed out loud when Alexia clumsily asks Lord Maccon to be her mistress. Victorian relational language made it difficult for a woman gracefully to ask a man to shack up. Ever the bull in the china shop, Alexia crashes forward using the awkward language.
I also enjoyed Carriger's compassionate use of pop psychology. What a horrible weight Alexia must feel being labeled a spinster at the age of 26! Not to mention the racist, constant belittling of Alexia's "Italian-ness" - her exotic appearance, darker complexion, black hair, etc. These physical characteristics make it all the more likely that Alexia would be labeled a spinster in Carriger's Victorian world. The often hateful treatment of Alexia by her family makes this supportive statement by Lord Maccon that much sweeter: "I understand that you have been taught for far too long that you are unworthy." Alexia's floodgates open, and Lord Maccon gets a well deserved thumbs up from me. What young person hasn't gotten the message at some point that they're unworthy? My unhealthy desire to pummel Mrs. Loontwill aside, I can relate to Alexia's experience at a deep level.
Then there's the scientific ethics component to the story. What right do scientists of any stripe have to use unwilling human or animal (or supernatural) subjects to uncover information to protect the "commonwealth"? Is torture ever warranted? And who decides what's best for everyone else anyway? I wanted to destroy the Hypocras Club and all it represents myself. Carriger seamlessly and naturally works this scientific ethical issue into Soulless. Will Carriger push the ethical issue even farther? Will she explore the theological and philosophical implications of having excess or no soul? I guess I'll have to read Changeless to find out.