Steampunk is a difficult genre, not only to categorize but to master. It can involve everything from tiny robots infused into everyone’s blood at the orders of a 19th-century version of Genghis Khan’s horde to necromancers raising hordes of the dead to female airship captains carrying secretive cargoes across the English Channel. There’s often a few common elements: steam technologies abound, the aristocracy still largely reigns supreme, a dramatic chase conducted by airship is more likely than not to occur and, even more likely, a romance between a spirited heroine and dashing hero. However, world-building varies widely, as some books throw in a few steam trains and evening gowns and promptly sacrifice adventure, or a coherent plot, for a romance with a domineering alpha aristocrat. The best steampunk novels strike a balance between the two, providing a little bit of everything, and Gail Carriger’s work can be relied upon to do exactly that.
Her debut novel, “Soulless” (2009), takes place in an England where steam and the supernatural exist side by side and features the formidable Lady Alexia Tarabotti, the owner of a temperament that refuses to tolerate nonsense of any kind, a parasol that can be easily turned into a weapon and an unusual gift. Alexia is a preternatural, one of the rare individuals capable of taking away the powers of vampires and werewolves and of exorcising ghosts. Her unusual gift and ability to attract trouble lead her to be caught up in the mysterious disappearances and reappearances of vampires and with the irritatingly handsome, as well as simply irritating, Lord Connal Maccon. Intrigue, flirtation, a mysterious order with nefarious intentions and treacle tart ensue. Carriger manages to strike a skillful balance between mystery and romance, as Alexia and Maccon make for both good flirting and investigative partners. Their push-pull dynamic is positively delightful, and they are matched in every way. The supporting characters are equally amusing, whether it is Alexia’s remarkably silly best friend or Maccon’s professorial, highly dignified right-hand man. Admittedly, the unique writing style of “Soulless” is probably not for everyone. It can be very archaic, occasionally ranging on precious and packed with references to tea, fashion and the importance of having an appropriate witticism for every occasion. But for a certain kind of reader, it could well be heaven.
There are four more books about Alexia — which make up the Parasol Protectorate series — as she journeys to Scotland, Italy and Egypt in order to acquire even more lethal parasols and get to the heart of the mystery about her deceased father. They are all quite enjoyable, and, although the momentum flags slightly around the fourth book, it promptly picks back up in the fifth and final volume. Moreover, Carriger just launched a series about Prudence, Alexia’s daughter, who has special abilities of her own and whose adventures will no doubt take her to even more far-flung corners of the Empire. There is even a young adult series set before the Parasol Protectorate, which takes place at a boarding school charged with turning respectable young ladies into highly effective spies. Whatever your steampunk needs, Carriger is ready to deliver.