This has definitely been a blitz!
First up are the Soulless manga, based on the first three books of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series - Soulless, Changeless, and Blameless. (Even though each the the mangas are called Soulless Parts 1, 2, and 3.)
This is one of my favorite book series. A quick primer: This is a Victorian steampunk universe where vampires, werewolves, and ghosts exist and are "out" in society, all trying to get along. They are considered supernatural, existing because of an excess of soul. Balancing out the supernatural are humans who are called preternaturals, and they have NO soul. They are able to render the supernatural human with just a touch. The main character, Alexia Tarabotti, is a preternatural - in addition to being a spinster, a bluestocking, and a half-Italian with a large nose and a penchant for unusual parasols and the handsome Alpha of the local pack, Lord Maccon.
The mangas, of course, cannot possibly capture all the wit and humor of the original novels, but they are definitely fun. My main complaint is that the artist drew everyone a little bit too "pretty" - it's not that Alexia, Maccon, and company are unattractive, but Alexia is a bit too narrow-waisted (her girth is something that is mentioned a lot in the books, in an AWESOME way) and her nose is definitely not big enough. (It's an important part of who she is, her only legacy from her father aside from her preternatural state.) Lord Maccon and his pack should be less, uh, feminine-looking (and by that I mean, their facial features shouldn't be so dainty), but for characters like the flamboyant Lord Akeldama and the cross-dressing Madame LeFoux, the aesthetic worked out really well. There are definitely plenty of sexy moments scattered throughout the series, not to mention the fact that there's a lot of nudity (because what do YOU think happens to werewolves' clothing when they change?), and these are definitely not left out of the mangas.
What I liked best about reading the mangas was that they helped me sort things out visually in my head. There are some parts of the stories that I had trouble visualizing (like the layouts of certain locations and some of the action sequences), so it was nice to see someone else's take on it. Also, it was just AWESOME to see the horrible hats and dresses worn by Alexia's friend Ivy Hisselpenny - in the books, her awful taste in clothing is legendary, so it was just really fun to see someone's interpretation of that.
I wouldn't recommend reading the mangas by themselves, because you'll miss out on the biggest reason why The Parasol Protectorate is good - Gail Carriger's writing! - and you'll also miss out on the last two books of the series, since the mangas only cover the first three books, and there are some wonderful relationships and revelations that form in those last two books. But as a supplement to the series? These are pretty great, and VERY quick reads.
As you can see by the consistent use of the word "lover" in all the novels' titles, this is a supernatural romance series. I was recommended these by a friend since I am known to be a fan of vampire books, so I gave them a try, realizing quickly that these are not vampire books with some sex in them, but rather, they are sexy books with some vampires in them, if you catch my drift.
So, a quick summary: In this universe, vampires are merely a separate species coexisting among humans. They have their own social classes/hierarchy, language, deities, etc. They are not created through biting and the exchange of blood, nor do they feed off human blood (at least, if they want to be truly nourished - male vampires have to feed off female vampires and vice versa, which is why the mating stuff is important at times). They take mates, they have babies that grow into adulthood, and around the age of 25, they undergo the transition into full vampirehood. But life is not so peachy - they are constantly being hunted by lessers, a race of soulless (heyIseewhatyoudidthere), formerly-human slayers who are commanded by their own dark entity to kill vampires. Luckily, the vampires have a group of warriors, the Black Dagger Brotherhood, who serve to protect them and kill the lessers. These novels are about them.
So, I have to say, I rolled my eyes a lot while reading these. The BDB consists of Wrath, Rhage, Zsadist, Vishous, Tohrment, and Phury, and yes, those are their names and how they are spelled. Yup. (Ward includes a glossary at the beginning of each book, and they also include words like "cohntest" and "ghardian" and "sehclusion." SERIOUSLY.) Each warrior, as you can probably predict, is excessively virile and aggressive, with large... muscles. And in pretty much each installment of the first four books (except #4, which I'll get to in a bit), they are all kind of scary, dangerous, and tortured until they meet their beautiful and perfect true loves, who are able to tame the wild beasts within (at times, literally - I'll get to that in a bit).
Summaries of each novel, with mild spoilers:
Book 1, Dark Lover (*cue eyeroll* I'm so glad I'm not reading in public, holding a copy of this book with the words printed on it for everyone to see) is about Wrath, the last pure-blooded vampire of them all (complete with long, dark hair and a widow's peak and everything), and the leader of the BDB. He is asked by his good friend Darius to look after his daughter Beth, who is half-human and knows nothing about the existence of vampires, but who is about to go through the transition. Wrath at first refuses, but when Darius dies suddenly, he feels obligated to carry out Darius' last wish, so he seeks out Beth... and of course, he finds his body responding in a BIG way.
Book 2, Lover Eternal, is about Rhage, whom everyone calls Hollywood because he's got movie star good looks, with his blond hair and electric blue eyes. He's an insatiable fighter and lover, but this is because he was cursed long ago, and he needs to fight and have lots of sex to keep himself from literally turning into a giant dragon thing and literally chomping on everyone around him. But he meets and falls in love with Mary, a human whose cancer has returned. Important note - I liked that Mary's body carries the evidence of her illness, and that she's not glamorous and strikingly beautiful like the other women, but she gets treated like a goddess all the same. It was refreshing to see a non-modely woman holding her own.
Book 3, Lover Awakened (seriously!!!!) is about Zsadist, who has a reputation for being the cruelest, scariest mofo among them all - not in an intimidating way like Wrath is, but in a cold-blooded way. As you can probably guess by his name, he literally gets off on scaring women. (Not something I like hearing, as a female and as a feminist.) Spoiler alert: it's all a front. The truth is, Zsadist endured years of abuse (including rape, by males and females) as a blood slave, and the result is that he has built up walls to keep people, especially females, out, because he is so traumatized that he literally cannot handle intimate contact. So when Bella, a vampire aristocrat, tries to get close to him, he ends up heaving into the toilet from the experience. When she ends up kidnapped and tormented as well, Zsadist finds himself especially compelled to help her, and the development of their relationship is extremely difficult and complicated and angsty.
Book 4, Lover Revealed, is actually about Butch O'Neal, a human detective who is/was a friend of Beth's (in Book 1), who has since fallen in with the BDB and who has left his own human life behind to fight alongside them. He falls in love with Marissa, also a vampire aristocrat, and of course, their relationship is also fraught with a lot of drama, as things are complicated by this weird thing that starts happening to Butch after he gets kidnapped and tortured by the lessers.
Okay. Geez. Lots of summaries.
I suppose it's just a convention of the vampire genre, but as with Twilight, I find a lot of aspects of these relationships and the Brothers' behavior to be problematic. You know how for whatever reason some girls found it romantic that Edward would watch Bella sleep at night? There is a lot of stuff like that - when Wrath and Beth first meet for real, he's this HUGE GUY hulking outside her door, and she's freaked out, and suddenly he beams himself inside her house, like, without asking her permission or anything, just slowly stalking towards her, and god help me, she finds herself aroused.
When Rhage first meets Mary, his vision is hazy, but he's drawn to her voice, and suddenly he's got her pinned against the wall as he's sniffing her neck or something and murmuring stuff into her ear, and he's scaring her. And he becomes obsessed with her, and insists on taking her out on dates that she doesn't really want to go on, but he's so sure that he can change her mind or whatever, even though she constantly tries to tell him, politely, that she doesn't think it's going to work out between them.
And Zsadist, seriously... he does actually tell Bella to leave him alone, but she won't, and when she shows up in his room anyway, he tries to teach her a lesson in a really scary, forceful way, but apparently she's into it.
Butch is a human, and is different from the Brothers, but he gets fully absorbed into their world to the point that he starts dressing like them, acting like them, fighting alongside them, and yes, even having the same bonding/mating urges as them. (I'll say no more, to avoid spoilers, but I will leave you with three words: deus ex machina.)
I mean... what the eff???
Nevermind the fact that their mating process is animalistic in the sense that the males "mark" their females by leaving their scent all over them (seriously, they might as well just pee on these women) and the constant inner claims of "Mine!" like they're property, and just... ugh. PROBLEMATIC DEPICTIONS OF RELATIONSHIPS AND GENDER ROLES, AHOY.
Do they get a pass because they're a vampire society, and not human? Lots of Twilight apologists claim that we're not supposed to mimic Edward's behavior because, duh, he's a vampire and we're humans, and their world is fiction and should be treated as such, but I defy you to tell that to the scores of girls who have grown up believing that they will someday find their own Prince Charming after growing up on Disney cartoons. We identify with protagonists, which is why, in the BDB novels, we see the vampires as sympathetic and the lessers as evil, and even though these Brothers engage in some seriously reprehensible behavior, their women ultimately end up swooning in their arms.
To be fair though, the female characters are interesting on their own, and thank goodness for that. Beth is a reporter dealing with oppressively a-hole-ish human males, and Mary has a core of steel after surviving cancer and her mother's death, and Bella is spunky and knows her own mind, and Marissa (who was the least promising character to start with) ends up leaving behind the glitz of the vampire aristocracy to open a shelter for abused (vampire) women and children. That's pretty good, I think. All four of them, when pushed by their mates, push back - there is lots of "Don't you dare assume that you know what I need better than I do" and "If you want this to go anywhere, you have to be honest with me" and stuff like that. Which is good.
On the other hand, from both sexes, there are a lot of corny exchanges of "Oh, my love!" and stuff like that. The dialogue in general was off-putting. I mean, I guess I can put up with this "My lord, my master!" stuff, but the bro talk ("What's doing, my man???") was just... yeah, ugh. (Do guys really talk like that? Human or vampire?)
And the subplots involving the new trainees and the lessers and stuff don't really interest me one bit, but there are other side characters (like Bella's brother Rehvenge) who strike me as interesting. (I know he's got a book later on, devoted to him.)
So why did I keep reading, and why WILL I keep reading this series? While the novels can't seem to avoid the bodice-ripping conventions of its genres ("vampire" and "romance"), there are some things that interest me, and I want to see how they play out. For example, as mentioned above, the roles of the women in the stories and how they function are interesting to me, and I hope they start to get more weight (although, since each novel focuses on a different Brother, the only female perspective we get is from the love interest for that specific novel). I am also interested in seeing how the Vishous' story plays out (he's the focus of Book 5), because Book 4 kept teasing at his attraction for Butch, and I like that their complicated friendship is treated with delicacy. Book 5 will most likely pair him off with a female, but if there might be another non-hetero pairing later on in the series (and my friend tells me there will be), I am glad that there is potential for it to be handled well.
I will keep reading, not because of the sexy times so much (because, seriously, at times they're so over the top that I'm afraid my eyes will start hurting from all the eyerolling), but because I'm interested in character development. Books 1 and 2 didn't impress me so much in that regard, but Zsadist's arc and the arc that is being teased for Vishous are good so far, and I hope there will be more of that - something more complex than "big manly man takes beautiful woman to bed." I do not deny that there are a lot of problematic elements (and again, I'm sure it's just part of the genre), and I am not ignoring those problematic elements, but I'm interested in seeing what IS worthwhile about this series. So I will keep on going.
Summer reading tally: 9