The Girl With Two Souls by Stephen Palmer

The Girl With Two Souls
Stephen Palmer
CSIPP, 378 pages
Review by Katie Gray

In Bedlam asylum, some time in the early twentieth century, Kora Blackmore wakes up. She eats her breakfast, chats with her nurse about her plans for the day, re-reads her only book – and receives a rare visitor, a mysterious stranger who calls himself Doctor Spellman. He leads her on a cunning escape, out of Bedlam, out of London, north to his family home in Sheffield, where he promises she’ll be safe.

But as the title of the book suggests, he’s rescued not one girl, but two. The next day, Roka Blackmore wakes in a strange bed in a strange house, confused and disoriented to find herself outside Bedlam. She, too, makes the acquaintance of Doctor Spellman – but is far less inclined than Kora to do as she’s told…

Kora and Roka are two girls in one body. Together they’re the illegitimate daughter of Sir Tantalus Blackmore, the genius behind the British automata workforce. While quiet, studious Kora investigates the mystery behind her curious condition and her father’s work, strong-willed Roka stays up all night to see Lenin speak at a Communist rally, throws bricks through windows with the suffragettes – and champions rights for automata.

This alternate twentieth century is clockpunk rather than steampunk, the strange and unsettling automata of the eighteenth and nineteenth century fusing with the mass production of the industrial revolution to create a snowballing robotic workforce, given life by the mysterious ‘soul giver’

Did Kora/Roka receive her extra soul from the soul giver? Did she suffer some form of mental break? Or is something stranger afoot?

Stephen Palmer weaves his clockpunk setting skilfully. Automata communicate with their masters through ‘the lingua’, a programming language written on a stenograph; their rise is having a devastating impact on the human workforce; already people are debating whether automata, like any other workers, deserve rights. The alternate timeline has a sense of realism; robots are woven seamlessly into real British history, looking back to the Luddites of the early nineteenth century and forward to contemporary fears of computerisation.

There are hints of larger, more fantastical things in the background. What (or who) is the soul giver? Doctor Spellman confesses that there’s a dark secret at the heart of the factory and Sir Tantalus himself is frightened by his own work. All in all, it’s an intriguing book, with plenty of questions left unanswered for future volumes.

But on the flip side, all those questions are part of the reason why The Girl With Two Souls left me a little cold. I wouldn’t expect all the answers at the end of act one, but I was expecting some kind of a resolution. Instead the book rambles to a somewhat arbitrary stopping point. It feels more like act one of a long novel than volume one of a trilogy.

I’d happily read volume two – but to find out what happens, not because I’m especially invested in the characters. Neither Kora nor Roka is fleshed out enough for my liking. Far more attention is lavished on the differences between them than who either girl actually is as a person; Kora is quiet, studious and obedient, Roka is loud, illiterate and does as she likes. The contrast wears a bit thin. Hopefully both girls will be developed more in books to come.

Palmer is on thin ice with the inclusion of Bedlam and the ambiguity over Kora and Roka’s condition. It should be self-evident, to any educated reader, that they don’t have a natural illness as the situation depicted here is, quite simply, not how mental illness works. Dissociative Identity Disorder is a controversial, poorly-understood and stigmatised disorder, and in my opinion, it’s a subject that writers of sci-fi and fantasy should stay well away from.

That said, the Bedlam scenes are brief and tasteful, Kora and Roka’s condition renders them vulnerable rather than dangerous, and both are sure of their sanity and their status as separate people. Neither, refreshingly, is there any question of one of them being the ‘real’ girl; they’re content to regard the other as an equal. As stories about multiple personalities go, this is a well-handled one, and I’d be surprised if later volumes reveal them to be one girl with a mental problem.

Overall, I had a good time reading The Girl Will Two Souls. It’s a fun read if you enjoy clockpunk aesthetic, with a plot that’s rarely predictable and isn’t afraid to get political. I look forward to reading the sequels and I hope the resolution, when it comes, satisfies my curiosity.

This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 7.