New Book Nook: Half a Soul is an Unexpectedly Charming Regency-Era Fairy Tale

This review was originally posted on The Geeky Waffle. It has been reposted here with permission.

When first approaching Half a Soul, I was told to expect Pride and Prejudice meets Howl’s Moving Castle, and never in my life have I seen a comparaison so apt – and I mean that with the highest of praise. 

Half a Soul tells the story of Dora, a young woman in Regency England who suffers from a strange affliction: when she was a child, a faerie came and tried to take her soul in payment for a promise her mother had made. The attempt was foiled by her cousin, but not soon enough. Instead of taking her whole soul, Lord Hollowvale only makes off with half of it, leaving Dora drained of every strong emotion and instead feeling numb and bluntly honest. 

This affliction is less than ideal in a young woman in Regency England, for whom appearances – particularly on the marriage mart – are everything. When Dora heads to London with her cousin Vanessa to try and secure the latter a husband, she finds herself wrapped up in a wold of politics and magic, at the heart of which she find Elias, the kingdom’s magician-in-residence known as the Lord Sorcier. 

The world is familiar to anyone familiar with the tropes of Regency-era romance, but is sprinkled with just enough magic to keep things interesting while still keeping the story grounded. Problems cannot be hand-waved away with magic. Instead it is a tool to be used much like any other skill, which keeps the story grounded. 

Dora, Elias and Elias’s best friend Arthur are brought together first by accident and next in common cause as they first try to break the faerie curse that has split Dora’s soul in two, and then turn their attention to uncovering the reasons behind the mysterious “sleeping plague” that is sweeping through the children living in London’s workhouses.

Like any fairy tale, it has the romance, the magic, the real-world moral, and of course the heart-racing tension even though you know it’s all going to work out in the end. It’s even got moments of levity that made it a great deal of fun to read. But Half a Soul does the reader and the story a service by genuinely standing behind the importance of being yourself and doing the best you can by others, in a way that never feels trite or insincere.

Olivia Atwater manages to weave in a deft social commentary, namely the extent to which the wealthy were willing to help those who had less than themselves when it benefitted their public perception, but otherwise were content to sweep such unpleasantness under the rug.  There is also a fantastic scene near the end that is spectacularly on point for all its absurdity, and winds up being one of the more biting sections of the book.

That’s not to say that the book is a heavy treatise on how the world used to – and still does – treat those deemed less than worthy. Through it all is the genuinely sweet and thoughtful love story that blossoms between Dora and Elias, which is both romantic, but also a reflection on what it means to be empathetic, to be a virtuous person, and perhaps most importantly, how perfection is by no means required to be considered “good enough” in anyone’s eyes. 

Half a Soul is out June 28, 2022. Special thanks to Orbit Books for an advance copy for review purposes. 

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