So often we see recommendations based on certain keywords or subgenre classifications, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of reducing recommendations to this basic approach. Using such an approach, two books might appear to be excellent recommendations for a single request; however, the art of the successful recommendation is far more nuanced.
We’ve all seen something like this before: “Recommended to those who like the Fae, Romance, and Regency- or Victorian-era language and settings.” In fact, this exact description could be used for two books I’ve recently read and are currently quite popular in Speculative Fiction circles, namely Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater and The Lord of Stariel by A.J. Lancaster. Based on that description alone someone might recommend both of these books to a single request, and they will have varying degrees of success, because these two books are in fact quite different. So, I present to you A Tale of Two Faerie Tales, short reviews of two books that – on paper – should appeal to the same reader and fulfill similar recommendation requests, but differ significantly in their tone, themes, and purpose.
Publication Date: March 29, 2020
Rating: 3/5 ✶
Kat’s Summary: As a child, half of Dora’s soul was stolen by an evil lord of Faerie. Now, a young woman who has debuted in Regency-era England, Dora finds herself searching for her place in society, never really fitting in, because she’s missing some part of herself. When her family travels to London to find a husband for her cousin, she meets the ill-mannered Lord Sorcier, who has vowed to help her try and mend her soul purely because it’s a challenging problem to solve. Their plans are derailed by a magical plague putting children into an unwakable sleep as well as the dealing with the travesties of London workhouses. Dora and Elias must work together to discover the source of the plague and save the sick children before it’s too late. And as they do, will they be able to deny the feelings that are unexpectedly developing between them?
Publication Date: November 1, 2018
Rating: 3/5 ✶
Kat’s Summary: Hetta is the unconventional daughter of Lord Stariel working as an illusionist in a theater. She must return to her estranged family’s estate after learning her father has passed away to take part in the Choosing ceremony in which the sentient land of Stariel will pick its next Lord. After being unexpectedly chosen, she must work within her small band of friends – her brother Marius, her cousin Jack, and her mysterious friend (and newly discovered love interest) Wyn – to understand the land’s magic, the arrival of unexpected Fae guests, and uncover the motivation behind a plot to seat her as the Lord regardless of the Choosing Stone’s intent. Can they uncover who is behind all the machinations in Stariel and restore order before any more dangerous Fae incursions put their land and family at risk?
I’ll start with how these books are similar, namely their prose and language. Half a Soul is set in Regency-era England; the existence of magic and Faerie is simply overlaid atop this historic setting. The Lord of Stariel, on the other hand, is set in a secondary world reminiscent of late-Victorian England. Despite these inconsequential setting differences, both books have beautiful, soothing prose, and more importantly the language used fits their quasi-historical settings. It evokes the atmosphere you’d expect from a fantasy-of-manners and helps amplify the desired, historic English atmosphere.
To me, the prose and language is the strongest similarity between the two books; in fact, the remaining similarities fall under the vein of : They both…, but…
First, there is a noticeable difference in tone. Half a Soul is a very much a classic fairytale, complete with the requisite character tropes – the evil stepmother (Auntie Frances), prince charming (Lord Sorcier), etc. – and carries a tone that matches what you’d expect from a fairytale. Words I’d use to describe the tone are sweet, whimsical, emotional. Atwater creates this quality through both the characters and the setting. Dora is young and innocent, and Lord Stariel hardened and melodramatic. They are established as emotional opposites, Dora having lost the capacity to truly feel, and Elias deeply affected by his conscience and feelings. The author leans into this contrast, and the emotional drama that ensues contributes to the fairytale atmosphere. The journey into Faerie amplifies this further by presenting an absurd and exaggerated version of Regency-era society and mores in a manner reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland.
In contrast, The Lord of Stariel presents the reader with a less frantically emotional approach that is far more akin to “slice-of-life” story-telling. Despite being a “faerie tale,” the tone is measured and subdued, resulting from both mature characters and the author’s presentation. Hetta is an established adult with her own job, home, and independence. She is experienced in both life and relationships. She is an unconventional woman in conventional society, and yet still adheres to the expectations of her family and propriety. Her manner, coupled with a plot that is largely interspersed with the mundane – meals, gatherings, outings, and meetings about the estate – delivers a feel that is more commensurate with a fantasy-of-manners than a traditional fairytale. And although the Fae are present, most notably in Wyn, the events seem more realistic as they are not described in an over-the-top manner, the revelations and interactions handled as if they were “normal” life events.
Second, both books contain romantic elements, but to unmistakably different degrees. Half a Soul is most definitely a Fantasy Romance and it is clear from the start that Dora and Elias are developing an unexpected and deep connection to one another. Their relationship evolves slowly over the course of the book, and the appropriate amount of time is spent developing both of the characters as well as their relationship such that the reader is invested in their success as a couple and the book can deliver a satisfying HEA. Dora and Elias have meaningful character arcs that are tied to their emotional states and their world views. Their attraction to one another is borne out of those arcs, based not in lust but shared experience and respect, creating a truly powerful romantic connection. (The scene where Elias attends the ball to dance with Dora under magically sparkling lights was perfectly romantic!)
The romance in The Lord of Stariel falls squarely into the category of romantic subplot at best. It’s likely (based on chats with those that have read the entire series) that this book provides the set up necessary for a more fleshed-out romantic subplot later on. But if someone is looking for a strong romantic subplot, I probably wouldn’t recommend this book. It’s a bit thin for my taste, even if I did find their eventual coming-together a highlight of the ending. One of the reasons the romantic subplot was so thin, was that unlike Half a Soul, Hetta and Wyn’s character arcs were not fully fleshed out in service of the romance, much of their attraction portrayed as lust. It was disappointing that Hetta did not explicitly choose to stay in Stariel. Giving this decision more emotional treatment and tying it to Wyn, even in the slightest, would have given Hetta more agency and made the romantic subplot far more compelling.
And finally, there is theming, or objective. Half a Soul, in true fairytale fashion, is not shy in delivering its message: virtue is not found in material wealth or in being a part of the aristocracy. By the end of the book, after tours through the horrific conditions of the workhouses and the journey to Faerie that mirrors Regency-era mores in an exaggerated manner, the reader can’t help but “get the message.” I would go so far as to say that the messaging could have been tempered a bit and still delivered its point! But that’s the purpose of many traditional fairytales, isn’t it? And so it worked within the context of the book’s tone and objective.
The Lord of Stariel is subtle in its purpose and messaging. Here, the reader is presented with themes that are less heavy than the single, overarching moral that drives its counterpart. In fact, the book is light on themes, the strongest of which centers around returning to your roots, strengthened by the use of the Stariel family’s connection to the sentient land as a metaphor, and devotion to family. The purpose of this book is not to deliver a message, but to present the reader with a world and cast of characters that they will ostensibly follow throughout the series as it delivers adventures of the reunited family with its new world understanding.
I would happily recommend both of these Faerie Tales. I found them equally delightful, but in markedly different ways. And while they appear to fit within the same proverbial box, for the reasons I’ve outlined above, you’ll likely not see me recommending both of these books to the same request. Half a Soul and The Lord of Stariel scratch decidedly different itches, and attention to what a reader is looking for will pay dividends against the success of recommending one or both of these books. Happy reading.