Books: ‘Half a Soul’ by Olivia Atwater Review

Cover for ‘Half a Soul’ by Olivia Atwater. Published by Orbit.

Hey! Hallie here!

I’m not usually the sister on this blog who does book reviews, but I am the big ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ fan so I had to check this one out when everyone started comparing this book to one of my favorite movies/books of all time. Because of other comparisons to regency media like ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Bridgerton’, I figured this would be a classic historical romance with some magic thrown in. And it is. But it also manages to be extremely unique with characters that stand completely separate from any of the regency media it’s compared to. Plus, I definitely think ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ fans can find enough similarities with this intelligent lead and swoon-worthy sorcerer to satisfy their love of Howl and Sophie. This review will be spoiler free so don’t feel like you have to avoid this if you’re just looking for a book recommendation! Let’s get into this!


Theadora Ettings, or Dora for short, is a nineteen year old girl in Regency England who was nearly abducted by a fae as a child. Though her cousin, the lovely Vanessa, managed to fend off the fae with a pair of scissors, the fae escaped with half of Dora’s soul. Now that both Dora and Vanessa are of marrying age, the two find themselves on a trip to London where Vanessa’s mother hopes to find the perfect match for Vanessa. But there seems to be very little hope for Dora, who finds difficulty expressing her emotions and can’t pick up on social cues well due to her lack of half her soul. But then she meets Elias Wilder, England’s Lord Sorcier, who takes an interest in her condition as well as her amused acceptance of both his sarcasm and poor manners. While Elias attempts to figure out a cure for her condition, Dora begins to wonder whether the other half of her soul is actually needed for her to fall in love.

What I Liked:

Dora: Dora is an amazing protagonist. First and foremost, I want to go into the way Dora only having half a soul is presented. Dora’s condition is an analogy for neurodivergence, with the author taking her own tendencies as well as those from some of her friends as inspiration for the way Dora reacts in many scenes. Dora is excellent neurodivergent representation. The way that she looks to her peers to try to figure out how she should be reacting is extremely relatable as a nerodivergent person who also struggles to express myself. I also really loved the explanation of how she struggles to feel short term emotions, but emotions that build up over time do stick with her. Considering that neurodivergent children were once said to be the result of fae meddling with or replacing them, I really enjoyed the way this was seemingly reclaimed in the book. Especially because, though some characters do try to find a cure for her condition, the book goes out of its way to show that Dora is a completely valid person as she is without half her soul. Even Elias, who is tasked with finding a cure, takes it upon himself to remind Dora that she isn’t less of a person for being the way she is. But looking past all of that, Dora’s fun to follow because she’s such an intelligent character. She can read other people very well, to the point that she’s able to use societal expectations to her advantage. She’s able to read Elias so well that she even helps him process his own emotions at points. Her intelligence also makes her interactions with Elias addictive. His attempts to be rude to her don’t end in offense, but with a witty retort that catches him off guard. The way she calculates each scheme in the book is so fun to read and I always love seeing a protagonist who outsmarts everyone around her.

Elias: A lot of the time love interests who are meant to come across as jerks don’t really work for me. A lot of books or movies don’t really address their bad behavior or acknowledge that it harms other people. Luckily, this book holds Elias accountable. Though it’s cathartic to see Dora shut down his attempts to scare her off at first, the book acknowledges his need to change and details the process. First it explains why he’s so hostile towards the upper class, that being because he’s well acquainted with the lower class and how they’re treated. But that doesn’t justify purposefully tearing down everyone he meets. While the book makes several good points about how Elias is right to be bitter in the way that he is, it also shows that Elias internalizing his bitterness and lashing out at everyone as a result isn’t great for not just everyone else, but also for his own mental health. I liked that the author was able to strike a balance between Elias being correct and Elias needing to find a different way to express his anger. Then there’s the way Elias treats Dora. Because although Elias is initially insulting, he’s still respectful and he takes her thoughts and opinions seriously. After he moves past his attempt to brush her off, he’s even more attentive. He listens to her concerns, values her conversation, and is charmed by the different ways she navigates society. I also love that, as he falls in love with Dora, he emphasizes more and more how unnecessary it is for her to change who she is. He fell in love with her while she didn’t possess her full soul and he doesn’t see a problem with that, but more than that, he doesn’t stand for when she tears herself down because of it. We love a supportive love interest.

Side Characters: The side characters aren’t all likable, but they all have a surprising amount of depth. My favorite is Albert, the son of Lady Carrroway whose social position makes her sons the most desirable bachelors of the season. Except for Albert, who has facial scars and an artificial hand because of injuries he sustained fighting for his country. Despite the honor he brung to his family, most of the people around him treat him with pitying politeness and not much else. Despite that, he’s one of the kindest characters in the entire book. He’s a doctor who spends all his free time going between work houses to cure illnesses and treat wounds, and he’s the first person in London who treats Dora with genuine kindness. Dora becomes close friends with him far faster than she develops any sort of relationship with Elias, and part of the reason why she ends up with Elias is because Arthur tries to set them up. Dora and Arthur’s friendship is so genuine and so wonderful. I also love Vanessa, who has a general love for life that’s enviable. But the book also addresses her flaws, namely her vanity, and makes her confront her self absorbed tendencies. It even gives a good amount of time to Dora’s chaperone Henrietta, who winds up being a bigger badass than I expected when I was first introduced to her. There are so many lovely characters in this book and none feel like they aren’t given enough time.

Class Divide: A huge part of this book covers the way the lower class were treated in Regency England. As I said above, Elias’ attitude towards others is because of the unfairness he sees in the upper class enjoying expensive parties and finery while the lower class suffers. All the main characters visit the work houses to volunteer during the events of the book, and the author doesn’t pull punches when describing the horrible conditions there. Those conditions become a driving force for the main characters to strive for a better society as the book goes on, and there are even several really good conversations about using your anger to fight for societal change. But despite it being a huge part of the book, the book doesn’t come across as preachy. It integrates itself perfectly into the main conflict in the narrative. I don’t see enough regency fiction bringing up the problems faced by the lower class, and I respect this book so much for tackling that issue.

What I Disliked:

Analogy Confusion: My biggest gripe with this book is the way the neurodivergent analogy seemed to fall apart at parts of the story. Though I do understand that Dora having half a soul is tied completely to the idea of children who were neurodivergent being said to have connections to the fae, I still think it’s odd that her neurodivergent qualities are a result of her actually losing part of her soul. It’s not that everyone thinks that there’s something wrong with her when in reality there’s no issue. She genuinely has lost half her soul and, even worse, there’s a possibility that her condition could be fixed. The biggest example of this is a spoiler so don’t read ahead if you don’t want those! SPOILER: At the end of the book it says that later in life Dora decided to actually reclaim the other half of her soul. This is supposed to be an analogy for her death, but it really isn’t clear. Even if it was though, it still makes me uncomfortable after an entire book about how she doesn’t need to change and how it’s important for her to accept herself the way she is.

Auntie Frances Redemption: Auntie Frances is Vanessa’s mother and the main caretaker of Dora, who is orphaned. She’s also literally the worst. She’s the character who makes Dora feel inadequate, to the point that when Dora tears herself down for her condition, she’s almost always repeating something her aunt said to her. She only ever treats Dora with cruelty and she often doesn’t have patience for Vanessa either. She’s shown to only care about marrying off her daughter and she doesn’t care who she steps on in order to do it. There’s really nothing likable about her. But after doing a horrible thing towards the end of the book, the book attempts to garner sympathy for her by having Vanessa mention that she feels bad about it. That’s really not enough to make me sympathize with the character, especially because she doesn’t actually show up to show how sorry she is. It’s a tiny problem, but I honestly don’t think it was necessary to throw in a line towards the end to try to make her seem like she could be a good person. We already have enough evidence throughout the rest of the book to prove she isn’t one.

If you’re a fan of regency romance, especially regency romance with some good banter between the love interests, you’ll love this book. If you’re a fan of pretty wizard boys who can walk the line between flirty and grumpy, I think you’ll love this book. If you’re a fan of intelligent leads who have relatable problems with seeing their own worth, I think you’ll love this book. In other words, I’m recommending this book to people who love ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ as much as I do, but don’t want a direct retelling of either of those stories. It also doesn’t move too fast, which might frustrate some but honestly fits this romance, and the cozy vibe of the book, so well. It’s now one of my favorite comfort reads ever and I hope it’ll bring you the same amount of comfort!

Don’t do anything fun until I get back!


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