I promised this review months ago, didn’t I? Well, it was that kind of winter, the kind where it seemed like every contagion making the rounds decided to take up residence in the Edgerton household. I was either sick, or busy trying to catch up with things that I let slide while I was sick, or arguing with myself that I ought to be catching up with one thing instead of another that seemed more appealing at that particular moment (with the result that I did neither of them), or . . . well, I didn’t write the review until now. But here, at last, it is:
THE GIRL WITH TWO SOULS, by Stephen Palmer
A new book by Stephen Palmer is always an exciting event for me, as he is one of the most inventive and imaginative fantasy writers I know of, his special brand of mad creativity and intellectual curiosity both idiosyncratic and challenging.
The Girl With Two Souls lives up to each of these expectations.
The setting is a steampunkish alternate Edwardian England, a world where sophisticated automatons are a fact of everyday life, servants to humankind, but also viewed by many as a threat because of rising unemployment, and also because of their enigmatic nature and origins. Everyone knows where they are made, but nobody knows how, or what gives them at least the appearance of sentience.
The main character is Kora Blackmore, illegitimate daughter of industrialist Sir Tantalus Blackmore, who owns the factory that produces the automatons. As the story opens, he has confined her to Bedlam, because she is either mentally ill (a split personality), or perhaps because she is something far rarer and more valuable/dangerous, a being who genuinely possesses two different souls: the rather conventional Kora, and the more questioning and rebellious Roka.
When kind Doctor Spellman appears to rescue her from the confines of the asylum her adventure begins, and it is one filled with action, danger, and increasing mystery. The setting alternates between the cozily domestic and the darkly Dickensian, and the large cast of characters (human and automaton) is varied and eccentric.
On the face of it this book is something of a departure for the author, since the alternate-historical setting and certain features of the plot make it more accessible than his previous books. At least it may seem so reading the first few chapters, but read a little further and it becomes obvious that Palmer’s fascination with philosophical themes—most notably the nature of consciousness and what constitutes a sentient being—continue on from his previous work, and have become perhaps even more complex and nuanced than before, and to these he has added a hefty dose of religion and politics circa 1910. For that reason, though the main character is only fourteen, grappling with the usual YA questions of identity and independence, I wouldn’t classify this as YA fiction, Though teenage readers might well be intrigued by the premise, the characters, and the unfolding mysteries, I think few at that age would be much interested in these philosophical matters—which are, I think, very near to the heart of the story, as they are very near to Palmer’s. But even though I don’t believe the story was written especially for them, that might not prevent young adult readers from reading and enjoying The Girl With Two Souls.