Monday 25 July 2022

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Review: The Society for Soulless Girls by Laura Steven

The Society for Soulless Girls by Laura Steven held up by a white hand in front of rainbow shelves.

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The Society for Soulless Girls by Laura Steven

Published: 7th July 2022 | Publisher: Electric Monkey | Source: Bought
Laura Steven’s Website

A dark and funny YA thriller with a supernatural twist. From the winner of the Comedy Women in Print Prize.

Ten years ago, four students lost their lives in the infamous North Tower murders at the elite Carvell College of Arts, forcing Carvell to close its doors.

Now Carvell is reopening, and fearless student Lottie is determined to find out what really happened. But when her roommate, Alice, stumbles upon a sinister soul-splitting ritual hidden in Carvell’s haunted library, the North Tower claims another victim.

Can Lottie uncover the truth before the North Tower strikes again? Can Alice reverse the ritual before her monstrous alter ego consumes her? And can they stop flirting for literally fifteen seconds in order to do this?

Exploring possession and ambition, lust and bloodlust, femininity and violence, The Society of Soulless Girls is perfect for fans of Ace of Spaces, The Secret History and The Inheritance Games.
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When The Society for Soulless Girls by Laura Steven was first announced, I knew I had to read it. A sapphic supernatural thriller meets dark academia retelling of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? It's absolutely right up my street! And I bloody loved it!

Carvell Academy for the Arts was closed ten years ago after the unsolved murders of four students. One of those students, Janie, was known to Lottie's parents, and her death rocked their community. Lottie has grown up with feeling the impact of Janie's death on those around her, so when Carvell opens it's doors once again, Lottie is determined to go. She wants to investigate the murders, find out what really happened, and get justice for Janie, but on top of that, it's such a prestigious school, and it's classes are legendary, and she's excited to study English Literature there. Alice wants to be a judge, and so decides to attend Carvell for it's Philosophy classes, to learn how to think. She's always been a bit prickly, quick to anger and snap at people, with violent urges, and awkwardly saying the wrong thing and alienating people.
So when Lottie and Alice first meet after discovering they're roommates, they don't get off to a good start. But then strange things start happening. Lottie starts sleep walking, and always finds herself at the foot of the North Tower, from which the murder victims were pushed, scrabbling around in the dirt, trying to get in. Even when she's awake, she feels drawn to the tower in a way that has little to do with her investigation, and has waking dreams of an older woman, illuminating manuscripts, and so much pain. After one sleepwalking episode, she wakes up in pain around her neck; a ruby from the statue of Sister Maria had imbedded itself in her neck. She starts to wonder if she's being haunted by the North Tower.
Meanwhile, Alice realises she's not making any progress with her fresh start and making new friends. She keeps insulting people, or pushing them away. When looking for philosophy books for class, she discovers another book, one about soul purification, of a ritual nuns in the past to rid themselves of their anger. After a few weeks of feeling like there's something wrong with her, she decides to do the ritual, and make the tincture. But after taking it, following being wracked with excruciating pain and seizures, she feels positively murderous. She blacks out for several hours, and when she comes to, a student, Poppy, has been killed. Just like ten years before; pushed from the top of the North Tower. Lottie is scared she might be next, with how she's drawn to the tower - has the tower chosen her as it's next victim? Alice is terrified it may have been her, because of the hours she can't remember. But the ritual worked, she's no longer angry; in fact, she feels almost cut off from negative feelings. Until it starts to wear off, and her anger comes back faster and stronger, and with the desire to kill.

The Society for Soulless Girls is such an incredible story! I was hooked right from the very first page; Steven's writing is atmospheric and ethereal, pulling you under it's spell, creating a mysterious tension you can't turn away from. The whole dark academia vibe worked so well with this story, Carvell Academy is just fantastic. It has such a rich history in once being a convent where a nun, Sister Maria died, falling from the North Tower, and then it's more recent history, of the murders that mirror Sister Maria's death. As a setting, with all these old religious buildings being reused for the academy, it just adds brilliantly to the atmosphere. The uni itself is just amazing; I adored the English Lit and Philosophy classes we got to see. They just sounded so awesome, and being a prestigious arts university, there's the sense of being around intellectually brilliant people. I just really revelled in it, it was so fascinating, and even though they're background to the main story, I learnt so much from those classes. There was this really awesome meta moment, too, when Jekyll and Hyde is discussed in Lottie's Gothic Literature classes. It was just so awesome.

I absolutely loved both Lottie and Alice. I was so intrigued by what was going on with Lottie, considering it seemed obvious Alice was the Jekyll/Hyde character. What was going on? Why did she have this constant pull to the tower? How the hell did a ruby end up in her neck, and how on Earth is it controlling her? What does she get up to when she's sleepwalking, and what are these waking dreams she keeps having? And then there's Alice. I've never read the original story, but I know the basic plot points for Jekyll and Hyde, and it was so interesting to see what Steven did with it. What is the tincture doing? Did Alice kill Poppy? (Or was it even Lottie?) And why does she seem to get worse when it starts to wear off? Alice is terrified of what's happening to her, because she's so much worse than before. At least she understood her anger before, but now it's uncontrollable, almost as if something is taking over, and she struggles so much to fight it. It's absolutely gripping! There are so many questions, and so few answers, and the more the story progresses, the tighter the tension gets. Even if Alice didn't kill Poppy, she's likely to kill someone soon.

I loved the relationship between Lottie and Alice. It's only when Alice starts to lose control in front of Lottie, and seeks her help to take the tincture again, that the two confide in each other what's happening to them both. They form an uneasy alliance in trying to figure out what's happening to them, and who the killer is. While Lottie worries that Alice killed Poppy at first, there are things that just don't add up. She's still suspicious, and Alice can't really blame her, but also can't trust her because Lottie may still be investigating her and turn on her. It's such an awkward and scary situation to be in; they need each other, but they don't trust each other. But they're both so intellectually smart, and the story itself is so clever, it's wonderful seeing them work together to figure things out, alongside new friend Hafsah. There's is the slowest of slow burn romances, for obvious reasons, but it was just so gorgeous - especially because Alice is so insecure about herself because of her prickly nature and how she tends to push people away unintentionally, and doesn't feel she's deserving of love. I just adored the two of them growing closer, despite their misgivings about each other, and with how it was literally dangerous to be in each other's company. And it's so tropey! We have athlete/non-athlete, grump/sunshine, enemies to lovers, there's only one bed, hurt/comfort, and maybe others I've missed. It feels like that should be far too many, and you may potentially be worried about the quality of the story as it may seem like it's trying to tick boxes, but Steven does such a fantastic job of weaving these seamless story together, and it all feels so natural. And I suppose the focus is more on the enemies to lovers and grump/sunshine tropes because of their personalities and the situation they find themselves in. Their relationship is just so wonderful.

I also really liked the feminist angle of this story. Ultimately, it's about women and anger, and how angry women are seen. How it's been believed that anger and aggression were typically male qualities. How women who weren't calm and quiet and placid have been treated historically; how an angry woman is somehow unnatural, not normal. And how women's anger, and what that can lead to, is the result of the silencing of women. How Alice literally thinks there's something wrong with her because she's prickly and so quick to anger. That she would do better in the world if she could just turn her anger off. And, surprising to absolutely no-one, it made me so angry. The Society for Soulless Girls has so much to say on this topic, and I tabbed so many quotes! There's a whole few chapters towards the end that were just so brilliant, and had me nodding along fiercely. The ending as a whole just had me raging so much. When we get to the reveal and we discover what's going on, oh my god, I was so bloody mad. But it was so brilliantly done, and so clever. I just loved it.

I did have a few quibbles. I feel the character of Hafsah was underdeveloped. It's difficult to discuss without spoiling elements of the story, but it kind of felt like she was just there to give another possibility, and someone for Alice to relate to, and a reason for Lottie not to completely doubt Alice. I know that's vague, but I can't really explain further. But there would be times when whole scenes would happen, and you would forget she was even there until she says something towards the end of a conversation. I do feel she was kind of done a disservice. And then there were times when Lottie and Alice would discover things or figure things out separately, and the conversations where they updated each other were off page between chapters. I can understand not wanting the reader to read again and again of things they already knew being repeated, but it did mean that we didn't see what the other's reactions to things were. They're both experiencing weird supernatural things, so it's easier for them to accept things their told, but I feel like even so, there would still be moments of freaking out and, "Hold on, how is this even happening?!" Moments were they were just overwhelmed, or struggling to take things in because it's a lot. We never really saw that, not when information was shared, we only got how the individual reacted when they discovered something. For example, there's a chapter when Lottie works something out and comes up with a plan, and the next chapter is from Alice's perspective when they're putting that plan in motion, we don't see Lottie tell Alice and Hafsah, how they react to the new information, what they think of the plan, or any other kind of discussion. I would have preferred to have seen more of that.

But in all, I absolutely adored The Society for Soulless Girls! It was atmospheric and mysterious, gripping and tense, and even quite frightening in places. It was such a brilliant, brilliant story, and I can't recommend it enough! This is the first book I've read by Steven, and I'm so excited to pick up her other books now. I'll be starting with The Love Hypothesis, her other sapphic YA. Read this book, it's incredible!

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