Book Review: Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater

Publisher: Orbit
Format: ebook
Release Date: April 5th, 2022

Rating: 5/5 Stars

As soon as I saw the words Regency Faerie Tales I knew I had to check this out. The mixture of Historical/Regency, Fantasy and Romance is done so brilliantly here, you can see threads of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians on the Fantasy side, and hints of Georgette Heyer and Julia Quinn in the Regency and Romance aspects. It comes together in a tale that manages to tackle disability and class while placing it firmly at a time when those things were misunderstood. Like most Regency Romances, the characters are part of the upper class, but Atwater makes room for them to learn and grow, and discover the elements of their society that are less ‘pleasant’, all via Theodora Ettings, a wonderfully written, determined character with ‘muted’ emotions.

As a child, Dora is cursed by a faerie, leaving her unable to feel fear or embarrassment. When she is whisked to London with her aunt and cousin, she plans to remain on the side, wanting to give her cousin her best chance at finding a suitable husband. But Dora soon meets the Lord Sorcier, who might hold the key to her faerie curse.

I’m going to recommend, firstly, reading other reviews around this one. Some do touch on something I felt initially unsure about – Dora reads as neurodivergent, and the plot feels at points like it’s building up to a magical cure, however this comes to us largely via Dora’s cousin, and this is one of the aspects Atwater uses to show the differences between Dora’s cousin – happy to be part of society and to search for a husband – and Dora, who can see more of the cracks.

The characters around Dora are wonderfully written, too, from meddling mothers and aunts, to the Lord Sorcier’s best friend, a doctor who is forced to take Dora to a workhouse to help him with his work. Dora and her companion prove they are capable of the help, and Dora feels deeply impacted by what she’s seen. This is where the story completely drew me in. I’ve seen others question how can she feel one thing when she can’t feel another, but I thought this was handled quite well – Dora is empathetic, and almost doesn’t realise it, because she has been raised in a society of well to do privilege, but when she is confronted with the reality of poverty, she describes it as the difference between emotions with ‘long’ tails and ‘short’ tails. It’s hard to explain, but I think if you’ve had those sort of periods of numbness, it’s not difficult to grasp what Dora means.

There’s some really great moments in the book where the kind of society they’re in is really highlighted, most notably with the faeries. These are definitely the cruel, twisted kind of fae, not the mischievous but friendly sort. As noted above, there feels like there’s elements of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell here, but throw in part of Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy, too. In short, these are the exact kind of faeries I love to see as antagonists.

They desperately try to mimic English society, in their own way exposing it for its hypocrisies and cruelties, equating virtuousness to wealth and obsessing over what makes someone the ‘perfect English gentleman’.

Overall I found this be a really excellent blend of the different genres, with empathetic and determined characters, critique on the attitudes of society, and fairies. Definitely one worth diving into.

Thanks to Orbit for providing a copy of this ebook via NetGalley. Views remain my own.

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