Kelly's Reviews > Soulless

Soulless by Gail Carriger
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's review
Sep 23, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: 21st-century, fantasy-and-scifi, fiction, goth-goth-baby, romantical, victorian
Recommended to Kelly by: RBRS devils
Read in June, 2010 , read count: 1

So, I’ve got something else to blame on Glee. In addition to all the terrible eighties music that I’ve been listening to, and image of that terrible Mozart spaceman outfit gone wrong that they put Kurt in for the Gaga episode, I feel certain that the same people who decide on the structure and performance of that show are the same people who decided that it was okay to release Soulless in the form that I read it.

At it’s heart, Glee is simply a weak, changeable framework for presenting touchstones of cultural nostalgia and niche enthusiasms, with interspersed attempts at taking advantage of whatever cultural phenomena have been raking in money over the past few years. The plot, characters and setting all radically and inconsistently change as necessary to allow the producers to put on a show about songs and stories that people feel are an integral enough part of their past or current identity to get them to watch the show each week. The problem with all this is that if you present a musical revue as an ongoing story, then people (at least people like me), will attach certain expectations to the story they’re reading. This is especially true of any genre storytelling- that is, storytelling that will trigger something in the audience’s brain that tells them how to process the joke that’s just been told, how to view the characters, and therefore how to judge the story’s conclusion or lack thereof. Glee is written by three different people who do not seem to communicate well to each other, and following any sort of story gets difficult: one minute we’re watching a mean-but-you-gotta-laugh-cause-he’s-right commentary on culture and the media, the next minute it’s a Very Special Episode that asks us all to sing kumbaya and feel bad for those less fortunate than ourselves. It’s gotten especially jarring over the back half of the first season (I maintain that there were several episodes in the first half that were genuinely good!). These genres do not sit well next to each other, each exposing the weaknesses and downright awful or mean aspects of the other- ie, Are these characters supposed to be simply cardboard cutouts that offer conscious criticism and zippy one liners? Or are they supposed to be real people for me to engage with and treat as I would a real person in that situation? You’ve gotta pick one and tell me what’s up, ‘cause otherwise it’s an uncomfortable and unrewarding viewing experience, and that feeling is gonna outweigh even my undying love for Journey.

I had a very similar experience with Soulless. There’s a lot of genres elbowing for room in here-Regency comedy of manners, Victorian gothic, steampunk, urban fantasy, PG Wodehouse comedy, a bit of SATC, and a prissy bodice ripper (if that seems contradictory, well, just look at the rest of the list!). The author herself talks about this in the little mini interview in the back of my edition of the book, how “suddenly, I was juggling more subgenres than Ivy has ugly hats!” (Oh, don’t worry, we’ll get there in a minute.) Now, I like a lot of these genres separately- and I am aware that there are lots of other people out there who read some sort of combination of these genres, and I saw the hand of the Glee producers at work. Separately, I like all these things. Together?: It’s a Queen medley on top of a Spice Girls cameo with some Green Day background noise, a Broadway power ballad’s notes soaring over it all and whatever the hell that Sugar Ray song was that I now can’t get out of my head- goddamn this idea for a review!- providing the remix beats. Why, Carriger, why must you try to ruin innocent genres who committed no other crime but being so awesome??

Our heroine, Alexia Tarabotti, is a pretty straight up Cinderella/Jane Eyre type, who just happens to have special magical powers (she’s soulless- but there are no downsides I can see to this except that there may be no heaven for you if it exists, but she seems cool with this). She is an Indomitable Fantasy Heroine Who Can Take Care of Herself, and a Wounded Duckling who thinks nobody likes her, even though she is prettier, smarter, wittier and has better boobs than anyone in the room. Now, that trope is pretty tiresome- even Tina Fey doing it ironically on 30 Rock as a commentary on Hollywood standards has started to grate on me. But fine, it’s a genre stereotype and whatever. The problem comes when Carriger applies different standards to the things that come out of her mouth- for example, her treatment of Ivy Hisselpenny, which pissed me off to no end. Now mind you, this is a woman Alexia calls her “dearest friend,” who she visits regularly and spends a good deal of her time with. It slowly emerges that Alexia finds her shallow, stupid and desperate for a man, as well as having terrible taste with all those “ugly hats”.

Now aside from all the “how would she know if she’s soulless?” comments people have already made, I thought that, more importantly, Alexia was not a nice person. I’m sorry I can’t state it in a more nuanced way than that, but it really made me angry. Ivy seemed to be yet another foil to make sure we knew just how Special a Special Snowflake Alexia was, and for Alexia to use for emotional comfort... while being completely comfortable with viciously making fun of her a few pages later. The genre mixing problem shows here because I think Alexia’s opinion of Ivy, the possessor of ugly hats, is exactly how PG Wodehouse might characterize a person in one of his short stories, as so-“And as for Miss Hisselpenny- she wore an ugly hat- we need say no more!” Fine, but as the book goes on, Alexia’s story gets more and more melodramatic and Tearjerking, with involved Gothic plots and character development past the opening farce, and I’m supposed to feel bad for how badly she’s been treated, ie, see her as a real person. And you know what? I don’t like any person if the nicest thing you appear to be able to say about your best friend is that she’s a shallow bimbo who wears bad hats. I’m left to assume the only reason she hangs out with her is because she’s one of the only characters with less social standing than Alexia, so she can feel secure that she’s better than her. Actually, Alexia doesn’t have a good opinion about any other woman she encounters in the book. If all other women are torn down as unworthy in a book that’s, in the end, about women ending up with men, I'm pretty sure I know what the reason is. And it makes it pretty clear to me who really puts the most importance on getting a man. Speaking of which, another example: we hear over and over that Alexia aspires to Lofty Intellectual Ideals and scorns gossipy, shallow women. But then she indulges in gossip later with Lord Akeldama’s (her Sassy Gay Friend) sassy gay chorus (which includes at least one incredibly offensive gay stereotype-the one named Biffy who magically knows how to do her hair in the most current French fashion!), and we’re supposed to see the gossip as naughty, titillating fun that all sophisticates take part in. So now she’s in Sex and the City and Pamela at once? Again, PICK ONE. Because honestly, presented that way, it seems like just another excuse for the author to give her more male attention. In short, she takes funny and good things about various genres and makes them mean and self-serving.

I could go on with the many other similar travesties this book commits, never mind the misunderstanding of Jane Austen, the completely unthinking racism and classism committed while imitating authors from earlier eras, not to even MENTION the insult to the Greek philosophers (which Elizabeth has covered nicely) or science of all kinds. But I think I have made my displeasure clear enough to anyone dedicated enough to reach the end of this review.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go perform an exorcism on Sugar Ray.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 61) (61 new)

message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

haha... i was JUST wondering why this book keeps showing up on "currently reading" shelves considering that the negative reviews showing up on my feed have outweighed the positive by one hundred percent.

but i wish you the best with it! maybe you can tip the scales in the other direction.

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

Mmmmm, gossip.

Kelly Mmmmm, gossip.

A dish best served piping hot with a delicious side of the booknerd breed of 'WTF'!

maybe you can tip the scales in the other direction.

So far... well, in the immortal words of Cher: "It's a full on Monet! From afar it's okay, but up close it's just a big ol' mess!"

Kelly "Clueless reference! I really think that's what this book needed."

Oh, this book just wishes it could be as self-aware as Clueless! Unfortunately, the delusions, they get slightly in the way.

Kelly You mean the book? It never really gets together in my opinion.

Eh?Eh! Wow! This is such a complete Review! I did like the ridiculous Sassy Gay Friend bit but all your reactions ring true.

Eh?Eh! Yes, the clothes!

message 8: by Kelly (last edited Jun 14, 2010 11:46AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kelly I did think she had a couple of good ideas

I will admit I liked some of the fun with steampunk technology and the way that the supernatural societies functioned within the larger whole (parts of it anyway).

but, honey, Journey, really? Ouch, my ears.

My love for Journey snuck in bit by bit at far too many drunken 2 am moments in college, and now my brain seems to respond by muscle memory or something and there's nothing I can do about it! I admit my terrible taste! But I will just say this: is there any better pop music than Journey for a power ballad? I do not think so. I will stand on that!

SGF is definitely like the Beau, only 10x exaggerated. And radiating happy vibes, not evil ones. Certainly would not be shocking to find out this lady has read more than her share of Georgette Heyer novels.

Kelly Oh, and Bun, you do right to stay away! I think one probably gets more honesty out of Austen slash fic than this book.

message 10: by Kelly (last edited Jun 14, 2010 12:58PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kelly I think she actually took more from Heyer than Austen.

I'd buy that. When I say there's Austen in here, I mostly mean the Austen that Hollywood gives us rather than the actual Austen. There's definitely some too many viewings of Colin Firth as Darcy in there with Lord Maccon.

Biffy the gay-stereotype hairdresser. That had me spitting, too.

Oh, and we must not forget how he turned out to be a perfect wedding planner as well, with his Special Gay Powers of impeccable taste in all areas of fashion and style! Argh.

message 11: by else (new) - rated it 1 star

else fine I couldn't even get through it.

message 12: by Kelly (last edited Jun 15, 2010 04:53AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kelly I have to ask about the content of the racism. Is it like, George-Lucas-likes-old-serials-so-much-that-he-peoples-his-films-with-stereotypes racist, or is it more of a hooray-for-colonialism-and-to-hell-with-savages sort of racist, or what?

Hmmmm. It's more of the former than the latter, I think. To be fair, the only POC in the book is Alexia herself (which is of course it's own issue)... sort of. The racism present in the book is tied up in her sexuality. We're told that she's docked social points for being Italian, and attractiveness points for having "olive" skin. It makes her more Special and Unique. My problem comes in that the author clumsily tries to engage with something you find all over romance novels- namely that English people consider people of Italian or French blood passionate, and that they somehow like sex, are more knowledgeable about it, and are more instinctually sexy than other people. She tries to be satirical in blaming Alexia's out of control behavior on her Italian blood- I think. Trying to give her the benefit of the doubt here- but she keeps using the word "exotic," to describe why she actually is attractive- the guy she ends up with says that, 'oh people who don't think she's pretty just don't understand how exotically attractive she is'. Over and over, her Western European Non-English blood is fetishized as making her more sexually exciting- she even gets all her sexual knowledge from her Italian father's books- he was fascinated by studies of "primitive peoples" (yes, that's the word choice) and apparently those studies include drawings of naked people and sex. She seems to set out to make fun of it, but since she writes in styles of a time that believed in essentializing people, it sort of comes out wrong and doesn't work. I do think she meant to vindicate her poor Cinderella by saying that there are different kinds of beauty, but her reasoning and presentation was just kind of uncomfortable. Again, an area where the mixed voice was a problem.

Re, the gay stereotype: I met a couple of those girls in college, one of whom said to someone I know who is gay: "Hey, I don't have a gay yet! Do you want to be my gay?" *cue jaw on floor* Unbelievable, but those girls do exist. I should again try to be fair to Carriger here in saying that she does at lest make the main Sassy Gay Friend more than one dimensional, and there's a very sweet scene between him and Alexia at the end. But it's clear that Carriger largely likes writing these gay men due to their stereotypical gay qualities, and that that's largely why her main character interacts with them, and it's pretty bad.

message 13: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Elijah wrote: "Elizabeth, if it helps, the "gay men are awesome and can do your hair, etc." thing is just as harming to gay men, apparently. I have heard many a gay man complain about being treated as a simple accessory that every girl must have--expected to be a nonthreatening man to have on one's arm who says sassy things, picks clothes, and never actually gets laid himself. So, you know, like so many stereotypes, it's damaging to both sides. Hooray!"

Oh yes, what is it called, Will-and-Grace syndrome? Because for ages the gay guy on that show apparently NEVER got laid.

message 14: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Kelly wrote: "one of whom said to someone I know who is gay: "Hey, I don't have a gay yet! Do you want to be my gay?" *cue jaw on floor* "


(This reminds me of how Oscar Wilde is supposed to have picked out all of his wife's outfits, when actually according to a memoir by his son she had rather good taste and made her clothes herself.)

Kelly Is that true? I wasn't aware... it's really more of the treating a gay man as a possession part of it that got to me, even beyond the assuming certain qualities about a person who is gay. Ah well, awful either way!

message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

Man, the Italian thing was seriously troubling. I entirely agree that there was some stabs at parody there, but ultimately Carriger believed it: Italians do it better. It's like the soulless thing: this could be pretty cool if it turns out to be a social construct, like I'm hoping, but I'm almost convinced I'm wrong in my little theory.

message 17: by [deleted user] (new)

I think the Sassy Gay Friend is a mainstay of women's fiction - he's gay so he won't be the Baxter.

message 18: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 15, 2010 09:32AM) (new)

Elijah wrote: "And because it's impossible for a woman so perfect to have straight male friends who aren't falling all over her?"

Absolutely. I think it's pretty well established that men and women can't be friends too, right? I mean, I know in my own life I have to deal with furtive glances at my hour-glass figure* from, like, every guy I know. Excuse me while I go cut on my girlfriends so they pose no threat to my Total Romance Domination.

*J/k, totally. My best asset is really my legs. Or so my SGF tells me, I have no awareness of my own desirability.

message 19: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 23, 2011 08:57PM) (new)

Elizabeth wrote: "Well, Ceridwen, that pretend-I'm-not-gay waiter did keep coming over to talk to you; I think you have no true idea of your appeal to men. I think it was the way you smiled politely at whatever he s..."

He's not gay! He's totally had girlfriends that I've never met!

You're right. I'm a Special Snowflake. I bake too!

P.S. Elizabeth, your hat is terrible. :)

message 20: by Kelly (last edited Jun 15, 2010 10:06AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kelly Damn, I knew I should have gone with peacock feathers instead of red ribbons.

I dunno, Elizabeth, maybe you should check that your SGF isn't an SSF just out to make you make bad fashion decisions so other men don't look at you! That red ribbons thing is suspicious!

And because it's impossible for a woman so perfect to have straight male friends who aren't falling all over her?

Uh, there's even one point in the book where the hero is jealous of her spending time with her SGF, and it's implied that it's because he thinks he's into her- tho SGF is an old vampire, and it seems the most well established gay person in the city, and the hero is the head of the supernatural bureau in London, so for him not to be aware of the guy being into guys (esp with his posse of beautiful men he keeps around) seems pretty weird.

Wealhtheow "there's even one point in the book where the hero is jealous of her spending time with her SGF"
That struck me as weird, too--like the author needed to have a scene where the hero is knee-jerk jealous but doesn't know why, but didn't really have a place for it. So she stuck it in where it didn't make any sense, because otherwise she'd have to do without a classic Romance moment.

Seriously, my main problem with this book (which I did enjoy) is that the world-bulding just doesn't hang together. I'm willing to forgive a great deal of silliness if the author has thought about how her society works, or how her characters truly think, and it doesn't seem like much thought was put into this.

Kelly it doesn't seem like much thought was put into this.

I do think she seems to have put some thought into the science of what makes people supernatural, but definitely was not thought all the way through or enough. The book is definitely about people saying witty things in the style of authors we like in settings that are cool. Which is fine to a degree, but yeah, it does need to hang together.

message 23: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Ceridwen wrote: "P.S. Elizabeth, your hat is terrible. :) "

//falls out laughing

message 24: by [deleted user] (new)

I still thought it was fun. And I think SitC is Sex in the City.

astried I think the ugly hat thing came from Mary Balogh's Dudley series where the heroes' sister has an unfortunate taste for clashing bonnet and dress. But this sister has an interesting and fun character as well instead of this mannequin with strange hats.

Maria Schneider Wow, interesting discussion! Sorry I found it late, but I'll babble anyway.

I just finished the book and while it's not a bad book, I had some of the same issues listed here. I didn't mind all the mixing of the genres, but did notice the "Stereotypes" and so on. The concepts of this book "Soulless" and how it works with/against supernaturals--kudos for that idea. I liked it and some of the underlying plot. The romance...ugh. Ye old, 'We're about to be run over by the train, but can't keep our hands (or minds) off each other" has never worked for me. There's lust and then there's blatant stupidity...

Couple of us on an Amazon thread were discussing; I too thought that scene at the end with the sunset might have been the best in the book. Finally brought round some real personality to a character that should have had much, much more from the beginning.


Since when do vamps need to breathe? (Chloroform scene) And if they do breathe and then get bleed out...that would imply that they needed to circulate blood and if they don't have any blood left...wouldn't that be the same as being staked??? Because now the guy is still breathing, but why? He's got no blood and the whole purpose of breathing is to circulate oxygen in the blood...

Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the book for what it was, but with all the imagination applied, it could have been a step or two up.

Nitpick I know. But it bugged me.

message 27: by mark (last edited Jun 23, 2011 08:53PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

mark monday did not expect to read such an insightful review OF SOULLESS, of all things. excellent!

Kelly Well, I probably wouldn't have written it if a group of us hadn't been reading this together (because apparently we were masochistic), I'll be honest. :) But glad you enjoyed!

message 29: by Manny (new)

Manny Ah, so that's what it's about! Thank you.

Kelly Have you had this one on your list? I am surprised!

message 31: by Manny (new)

Manny Kelly wrote: "Have you had this one on your list? I am surprised!"

No! But I'd seen so many references that I'd become curious...

Kelly Ah, I see. Well, now you don't have to waste any more brainpower on a book that doesn't really deserve it. :)

David Sann stop watching glee then. your review had nothing to do with the book at all. it was just a rant on glee

message 34: by Kelly (last edited Dec 21, 2012 06:03AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kelly Thanks for the helpful, constructive comment on a two year old review. I really appreciate the insightful criticism about how I think through my perspective on books. I'm definitely going to go back and change it now.

...Man, I haven't had a troll in awhile. I was starting to feel a little neglected. Thanks, internet, I feel better now.

message 35: by [deleted user] (new)

It is because he doesn't watch Glee.

message 36: by karen (new)

karen i'm pretty sure glee deserves to be ranted on, though, right?? because of all the singing??

Kelly I was just going to go with the.. er.. sub-par to say the least.. acting and the attempts to pretend that the show still has a consistent plot or characters. I'd like it more if they just turned it into a musical revue. I sign off on a full hour of terrible mash-ups with funny dances! As long as we're not pretending it's anything else!

Kelly Ah the days of yore when trolls were ogres and we commented uphill in the snow both ways! Trolls these days just cannot compare.

Kelly I know! Not even one comment that I think too much about the book or that I don't have the right to criticize books because I am not an author! Standards are clearly slipping in trolldom.

message 40: by [deleted user] (new)

...or insinuating that you're stupid and you missed some vital piece of the story, and you should read it again.

Kelly Not for all the tea in China! (to put it in an appropriately dated and nonsensical way appropriate to this book.)

message 42: by [deleted user] (new)

Split an infinitive; that's how I'll know you're really an Victorian.

Karli Jo Although I will give some slack to the overuse of the word "alacrity," I very much enjoyed the rich vocabulary that was used by this author as well as the entertainment value of the plot. We're there times that everything didn't quite add up? Sure! I still liked it though!
In addition, I found that the series as a whole did the opposite of stereotype. Just like with anything... Sometimes the stereotype fits ... That is the reason for the stereotype in the first place!
If being publicly gay was okay in the Victorian Era, the dandy would have most likely been a preferred lifestyle for many of the homosexual population. Having said that, there are other, less flashy gays and lesbians in the series. Also, many of these characters are major roles, it would be impossible to stereotype upwards of ten characters through five books.

Miriam Say wrote: "I read 2 of these books, and have enjoyed them enough to start the third... I LOATHE "GLEE" I really wish you didn't make that comparison since, even after reading why you felt that a just argument, I don't see what the similarity is. I can understand if you don't like the book, but perhaps just stick with the issues you had with the book, and not with some Television show that has nothing to do with the book. "

Yeah, Kelly, how dare you compare a book some internet stranger likes to a show she doesn't like?! Where's your sensitivity?

Kelly I am a horrible, undiscerning person with a small IQ who can't tell the difference between a book and a tv show. I can't believe I am able to even write this coherent sentence, really. Someone must be typing for me right now.

message 46: by Say (new) - rated it 4 stars

Say It seems my inquiry was taken as a personal attack rather than a inquiry.... ah well, some folks are sensitive. Cheers!

Kelly It was not an inquiry. Inquiries are usually phrased as questions. It was unsolicited advice that quite clearly indicated that I should overhaul a review because you didn't like the metaphor. Also, things in two different genres can never throw light on each other because they "have nothing to do with each other," especially because you personally like one thing and don't like the other thing. That's just what you said.

Don't be disingenuous and make this about me being a sensitive flower.

Kelly If it was somehow meant to contain a question somewhere though by all means let me know what your question was.

Megan You're braver than I am. I couldn't get past page 100. My best fried just raves over how awesome this book is and can't understand how I don't like it. And then she rants about how bad the House of Night Series is and EVERYTHING you've said about this book is EXACTLY what she complains about in that other series.

I am glad you put to words how I felt. I'm applauding you but you just can't hear it.

Megan You're braver than I am. I couldn't get past page 100. My best fried just raves over how awesome this book is and can't understand how I don't like it. And then she rants about how bad the House of Night Series is and EVERYTHING you've said about this book is EXACTLY what she complains about in that other series.

I am glad you put to words how I felt. I'm applauding you but you just can't hear it.

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