Way back in May of 2011, Gentle Reader, I did an interview about the first three book in my then very new Parasol Protectorate series; Soulless, Changeless & Blameless
These first three books have now been out in the world for over a decade. So I present unto you, Gentle Reader, the beginning…
An Introduction: In Which Gail Discusses Building the World of the Parasol Protectorate
The simple fact is, Gentle Reader, this was the series I wanted to read. I like steampunk but it tends to be a little too dark and riddled with technobabble for me. I enjoy urban fantasy but I am not particularly wild about a modern setting. So I thought I might just combine the two, and then shake it up with a jot more romance and a whole lot of humor.
I began by thinking about what kind of world could accommodate all these different elements: the monsters of urban fantasy, the gadgets of steampunk, the humor of comedies of manners, the romance of the Gothics. I’m familiar with the Victorian era and I find it a rich source of amusement in and of itself. It is a period of time, both in literature and fashion, that has always stolen away my heart. I used to make hoop-skirts out of my hula–hoops as a child. Those ridiculous fashions and that obsession with etiquette seemed the ideal time period into which to drop vampires (dictating such things) and werewolves (chaffing against them) not to mention steampunk technology. It seemed to me that what comedy I couldn’t supply with plot and character, an alternate Victorian London could provide simply by being itself.
But I had another reason. I have long been troubled by certain quirks of history that seem never adequately explained. The most confusing of these is how one tiny island with abysmal taste in food, excellent taste in beverages, and a penchant for pouffy dresses suddenly managed to take over most of the known world. How did Britain conquer an empire upon which the sun never set? I decided that the only possible answer was that England openly accepted supernatural creatures, and put them to good use, while other countries continued persecution and abhorrence of vampires, werewolves, and ghosts.
This led me to postulate that King Henry’s breach with the Church was over open acceptance of supernatural creatures into society (the divorce thing was just a front). This gave Great Britain a leg up dealing with messy little situations like winning major foreign battles or establishing an efficient bureaucracy or convincing the world cricket is a good idea. Vampires could sit as members of the cabinet, advising the queen on matter of state and foreign policy. Werewolves could fight in the armies, making them stronger and better and mobile at night. Ghosts could be used as spies. Suddenly, everything previously confusing about the Victorian Era made sense: the British regimental system was clearly based on werewolf pack dynamics, and pale complexions are in vogue because everyone wants to look like the trendsetting vampires.
There was one last component that cinched the Victorian setting for me. Werewolves, vampires, and ghosts are all monsters with strong ties to the literature of that age. I’ve read a good deal of gothic literature over the years. These three monsters in particular strike me as quintessentially Victorian. So I decided to twist it around and explore a world where such supernatural creatures were accepted as part of society. I knew werewolf culture would be based on wolf pack dynamics and I wanted a similar animal organization structure for the vampires. I also wanted something that was predatory and opposite that of wolves: female dominant instead of male, and so forth. Give those strictures, bat colonies (the obvious option) wouldn’t work, nor would most birds. Bee/wasp hive structures have always fascinated me so that seemed a natural choice.
So having decided on a setting and chosen my supernatural elements, I started idly toying with the idea of how a person might become undead. After all, if vampires and werewolves are bouncing about, what’s to keep them from turning everyone supernatural? There must be biological procreative controls in place. Taking into account what I knew of Victorian scientific theory, I hypothesized that an excess soul found in only a few people might account for bite–survival rates. In other words it was too much soul, rather than too little, that would allow someone to become immortal. Very few people would have this. And like an immunity to disease, it would be impossible for Victorian scientists to predict, when face-to-face with a normal mortal human, whether that person has excess soul or not. (With one exception, creative people seem to be more likely to have excess soul, but it’s still unusual. This means vampires and werewolves are more likely to become patrons of the arts.) This, in turn, led me to investigate the measuring of the soul – which an American scientist actually tried to do in the late 1800s. Combine that with the fated Counterbalance Theorem and I had the idea that if some people had too much soul, there should be others who had too little, or none at all. And these people could act as nullifiers to supernatural abilities.
Thus Alexia was born.
Alexia Tarabotti turns supernatural creatures mortal when she touches them, which can be terribly embarrassing, not to say fatal, for said creatures. It also means that on several occasions certain baser elements of society are actively trying to kill her, without proper introductions – so rude. A side effect of her soulless state is that Alexia is very practical in her approach to such trifling inconveniences as death threats. She tends to cope with most problems by either bashing them over the head with her parasol, or talking at them, with equally disastrous results. Partly as a result of her soulless state but also because she has Italian heritage (and looks it) and she reads too much Alexia starts out the series as a spinster. She is my favorite kind of character to write – practical to a fault, capable in a crisis, frustrating to the other characters around her, and all too often getting herself into impossible situations out of sheer nerve. It can be a little annoying trying to write myself out of the corner Alexia has gotten the plot into, but she is also rich in friends, so she has aide in times of dire need.
Because the biggest side effect of being soulless is pragmatism, Alexia is both typical and wildly atypical for a female of the Victorian era. The atypical aspects come from the fact that, being soulless, she simply sees the world differently. She also has absolutely no creative skill and very little imagination. However, because of her pragmatism she recognizes these flaws in herself and tends to surround herself with friends, intentionally or subconsciously, who compensate for her own inabilities. Alexia is not one of those heroines who charges forth, one woman against the machine. She seeks out advice, travels in company, and gets things done by committee. She’s peculiar in that she always acts quite the proper English gentlewoman and isn’t inclined to buck the system. Yet by her very nature she is driven to unconsciously subvert it.
Alexia’s first name just came to me, I’ve always liked the name: Alexia. Her last name, Tarabotti, is actually an ode to the deliciously named early renaissance proto–feminist Archangelica Tarabotti. Archangelica wrote a monograph arguing against the church’s assertion that women had no souls. Alexia Tarabotti has Italian heritage because of her name. That is to say, when I was coming up with the character and I discovered that name and combined it with a soulless state, everything else just followed after. I’ve had a love affair with Italy since I excavated there over a decade ago, so it was a natural choice for me. As to the nose and the skin, I knew she had to be atypical in appearance (and attitude and thought) so I could have her a spinster. Also, I don’t like to write beautiful main characters, they’re boring.
So, I had myself a main character and a set of supernatural elements that I was going to inject into Victorian society, now I wanted that steampunk element. I began constructing an alternative history that would allow for the rise and dominance of steam power. I knew I wanted all key historical events to stay in place. Most major wars and battles still exist in the Parasol Protectorate universe, but it is the reasons behind them are different. I don’t write so much alt–history, as re–explained history. I also knew I wanted to take the same tactic with the most ridiculous aspects of Victorian fashion as well. High cravats? Hide the bite marks. Confining bustle–skirts and healed boots? Keeps your prey from moving too fast. I wanted any new technology I injected into my world to fraternize with the frivolous as well as the dangerous and exciting. True, the Victorians discovered aluminum, but what did they do with it? They made it into jewelry. In the world of the Parasol Protectorate there are major advancements in steam power. What do they do with that? Use it to mount tea kettles on dirigibles. They’ve invented air travel, but they use it to run tours over Hyde Park for the aristocracy.
I then began to imagine how these steampunk elements might fit organically into a supernatural Victorian London. It seemed to me that, if vampires, werewolves, and ghosts were running around Victorian London, scientists of the day would be trying to understand them, dissect them, fight them, and avoid them. That’s simply the way scientists of the day behaved. This, in turn, would lead to new and strange advancements in science and medicine. In the world of the Parasol Protectorate, simply put, urban fantasy tropes have steampunk consequences. I didn’t want magic in my world, but by making 19th century science true and working along with all the wild and crazy theories and hypothesis I get to play with a technology that is almost magical.
It also seems part of the British character to ignore or quietly condone things rather than make a fuss. Very different from us Americans. It is simply more Victorian to take a stance the equivalent of, “Ah yes, vampires, jolly good chaps, excellent fashion sense, always polite, terribly charming at cards, we just won’t mention that little neck biting habit. And, my, they certainly do love to invest in those silly little Babbage Engines.”
That said, I do try to stay as accurate to 1873 England as possible. Changes leak in as either alternate explanations for reality, or alternate inventions to deal with the non–reality I’ve injected. There are sill hansom cabs roaming London but dirigibles rise to prominence as an alternate mode of long distance transport because vampires and werewolves cannot use them. Alternative guns have evolved utilizing silver and wood bullets. And, of course, the supernatural creatures themselves take a keen interest in promoting new technology and have the funds to do so. The path to world building consistency, for me, lay in letting my Victorians behave like Victorians, and react to my supernatural and steampunk elements as they probably would have, by coming up with wild theories and tests and gadgets.
And so the Parasol Protectorate as born, a world where vampires, werewolves, and ghosts have too much soul, and where one soulless spinster has the ability to cancel them all out, to make them mortal. A place where the monsters are not only part of society, they have their own private Gentleman’s Clubs. A time of invention and creativity; of industry and change. In Alexia’s London one may walk around a street corner and find oneself face-to-face with a wolf wearing a top hat, or a ghost with an important message, or a vampire who tisks at the sate of your dress shoes. What, under such circumstances as these, becomes the real monster?
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BOOK DE JOUR!
Soulless – The Parasol Protectorate Book One
Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations.
- First, she has no soul.
- Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead.
- Third, she is being rudely attacked by a vampire to whom she has not been properly introduced!
Where to go from there?
From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire, and the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.
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Quote to Sip
“Libraries are places where the damaged go to find friends.”
~ Tamora PierceTags: BLAMELESS, CHANGELESS, Q&A, SOULLESS