A Soul To Take has a great premise, but needs a rewrite (or two)

A Soul To Take has a great premise, but needs a rewrite (or two)

★☆☆☆☆

(1 star)

(This is a review of a free ARC I got from the publisher. As you may guess, this did not impact or change my review or review process. These opinions are my honest own.)

I hate to leave a negative review, especially for a book I’d been excited for, especially for a book by a debut author, especially for a book from an indie press… but here we are.

This book was right up my wheelhouse- wait, scratch that, it was parked in my garage. Urban fantasy? Demons? Demon-human integration? (with promise of political-social implications of that?) Beauty and the Beast type romance? Soul selling? Gothic cyberpunk? Yes. Yes please. It was on my ‘to-read’ list before I’d gotten myself an ARC.

When I’m reading, I’m often drifting to sleep drafting a review, no matter how far I am in the book. It helps me remember what stands out. And early on, I really liked A Soul To Take. I sincerely did- it was hovering at a solid four stars. And if you know me at all, those stars were hard won.

What worked in the beginning? And what caused it to spiral down?

Well, the premise helped a lot. I’ve written something where an outsider race had to settle with unhappy natives (angels living with demons, but still), so I have a keen interest in seeing how someone else would pull it off. I like politics, I like demons, I like social commentary. Even when we were in the early phases (first 150 pages or so), I was interested in the world. The level of cyberpunk with some gothic, steampunk themes (Balls, nobility, status, a constant thunderstorm) was neat. The first chapter was well set, a good introduction to the main cast, and the first few events set up the rest of the book in an even, paced manner.

There was a golly-lot of potential. The difficulty was, the book never hit that promise, the potential of its premise or even its initial plot points. One of the biggest factors in this was plainly the length, but more on that later.
Short summary by me:

Elexia (Lex) works for The Agency on a team of four: with Ana, Matt, and Nate. She’s not the strongest on the team, in fact still a newbie, but together they’re investigating human trafficking. Demons feed on blood to live, and as they’ve become integrated into society, the gov has set up legal blood-banks. But many still prefer to kill their prey, so an illegal trade of born and bred feed humans has cropped up.

Lex and her sister, Shellie, lost their parents at a young age in an event called ‘The Incident’- demons killed them. Demons are hated and openly feared by everyone, in fact. Making a contract with ones makes you a pariah, and most hide their strange eyes with contact lenses. But one day, Lex returns home only to find a demon (Malcof) has taken her sister- and then he kills Lex.

But she wakes up, revived, and finds she is Marked- held in a contract by a very powerful demon. An aide to said demon is there to keep her safe, and together they work to find out where Shellie went- and solve some greater mysteries afoot too.

The team aspect was interesting. I liked Ana (positive representation of a buff but still considered beautiful girl, yay! Female friendship, yay!). I liked the bar scene, the casual otherness of the demons, the cyberpunk action. It sounded neat.

But it also wasn’t what I’d been sold:
Here’s Goodreads summary, to compare:

The world has changed: demons of legend now live among humans, integrated into society through Government programs, wishing for peace.

Elixia Albelin, however, isn’t sold. As an Agent-in-training, she knows firsthand the blood-thirst of demons and isn’t jumping to befriend the monsters plaguing her dreams.
But when a mission sours, Elixia’s sister is caught in the crossfire: taken. Abandoned by those meant to protect her family, Elixia is left with only one option if she wants to retrieve her sister—a taboo option that goes against everything she believes in.

She must sell her soul.

Now, bound to a beast and living on borrowed time, Elixia has to navigate the demonic world to find her sister within a cesspool of human traffickers and serial killers. Enemies control her fate, the simplest truths are questioned, and misperceptions must be shattered. Only one thing remains consistent—Elixia must find her sister before time runs out. Or become the very thing she fears most: a soulless monster.

Gritty, powerful, and exciting, A Soul to Take is a gripping debut that explores prejudice, justice, and the consequences one family faces when those two collide.

The summary on goodreads implies a world like our own, where ‘demons of legend’ integrate into society- but this is a fantasy world, and demons have always existed in the public’s mind. They potentially used to be at war with the humans, but it is never clear- it’s certainly been about a century at least.

And a big thing, for me: Lex doesn’t sell her soul. It would have been so much better if she had, if she had broken taboo and her own morals, and sold her soul in a desperate attempt to find her sister- but she doesn’t. She wakes up and is Marked. She had no consent in the matter, nor is there any way to break it. The demon who did it wasn’t even in the same room as her, and it’s never quite explained how this happened.

It removes a good deal of agency Lex has, or could have had- she has no power in this matter, and as mentioned, no real choice. Instead of a tough decision of her own prejudice and morals VS having to save her sister, she… wakes up contracted to a demon who luckily also wants to save her sister.

Lex similarly isn’t ‘bound to a beast’. We do see mild hints of demons being bloodthirsty, but certainly not the one she is bound to (who we never in fact properly meet). Her handler, who works for her new ‘master’- he perhaps is the beast in this scenario. But no, not really either. He’s quite well behaved, attractive, and nothing about him is ‘beast-like’.

And she isn’t on borrowed time, either. When the contract ends, she isn’t due to die, nor does she lose her immortal soul, nor does she have any time limit. In fact, she is in no hurry.

Similarly (SIMILARLY): Lex is not at all in threat of becoming a soulless monster. There’s no hint of that being a problem for the contracted humans, and certainly it isn’t something Lex worries about or considers. It does come up, I supposed, about 65% in… but not quite in the way the summary implies.

And lastly, this book does not explore prejudice, or justice, or consequences, or really even family.

Ho hum.

Theming

The prejudice part of it is a big issue for me. Lex hates demons! Maybe rightfully! But her handler (Sebastian) is a demon, and she gets over that very quickly. In general, her hatred of demons rarely manifests in any meaningful way, and there isn’t one moment of ‘maybe I was wrong’. The issue is just entirely a non-issue. She is rude to demons, sometimes, but is generally okay dealing with them.

Demons are kinda evil, too. We never meet a ‘nice’ one. Lex’s handlers- Sebastian and Verity- are both good, but still killers, still with mild psychopathic tendencies. Otherwise, every demon we meet is evil, involved in crime, one of the bad guys… there is a bar owner who is normal, but still very shady. For a story about integration, there is nothing about… integration! Nothing about regular demons who actually want peace, or demons trying to live a normal life. No mentions of what day-to-day life is like in the city when there’s two very adverse populations trying to coexist.
On the subject of theming, as mentioned, I’m not sure ‘justice’ or ‘consequences’ really comes up either. I can’t remember anything that’s be relevant to the two. Family may be about the bond between Lex and her sister… but even that is underdeveloped, certainly not a theme.

Length

Now. To get down to the biggest problem with this book, the root of all error, the reason it lost all esteem in my mind: It’s too long.

Way too long.

We’re talking about 165k.

I’d always thought it was one of those rules: you can’t sell a book that long unless you’re a well established writer. Certainly not for a debut. And certainly not in a genre like urban fantasy. This is NA, but you still rarely see books go over 100k unless they’re epic fantasy.

The book has no need to be this long either. The plot is so stretched out, so meandering. You could easily cut 50-80k from it- there’s so many short scenes that go nowhere, so much bulk and bloat to no real aim.

At some points, the plot felt like it was episodic. I even sketched out a brief hit map of how events would play out:
  1. MC is tracking some suspicious man
  2.  MC spends some time getting ready
  3. MC is caught/seen, gets in trouble
  4. fight. MC is not very strong, is beaten up or nearly killed or actually killed
  5. she wakes up somewhere else and it’s been taken care of. we potentially see or at least later learn Sebastian saved the day

This happens at least three times, exactly. Lex is constantly investigating things, going to balls to sus out suspects, staking out locations… something is always happening in the first half of the book, but it doesn’t often make sense. Instead of a solid mission plan- here’s what we know, here’s how we’re going to find the sister Shellie- things just. Happen.

Lex investigates human trafficking, spends a lot of time instead learning about a serial killer, kills him, and… it doesn’t help her find Shellie at all, and in fact, doesn’t matter again. That’s a large chunk of the book, essencially useless. We’re thrown scene to scene, and Lex always seems to know what’s going on, why she’s there- but we rarely do. And never, even towards the end, did I really feel she was that focused on finding Shellie. Instead, she’s focused on whatever is happening now.

And what is happening now is often bizarre, and even more often, unimportant. A whole side plot about status and wealthy girls drops out past the halfway point. A charming but enigmatic childhood friend seems to cease to exist after the serial killer plot is through. We meet and befriend a lady cop, a wealthy housewife, the demon bar owner- only for them to not reappear for hundreds of pages, or at all.

It feels like it might as well have been two books, but even if you’d split it (serial killer half, and um… second half) neither would be cohesive plots. The seeming pull of the story should be Lex looking for her sister while having to deal with demons, and being Marked. But it isn’t. I’m not sure what it is- the book is far too bloated to have theme or cohesion.

Characters come and go for scenes that have no importance. Lex angsts about the same things time and time again. There’s far too many characters in general. Plot threads are picked up and dropped freely, some never coming back (Matt, from her team, is a good example of someone shows up once to be mysterious and important, only to never appear again, or be explained). There is absolutely no overarching urgency at all, and any that there was quickly depleted past the 150 pages mark.

Pacing

The pacing is whack. Because of the bumpy, near episodic quality, there is no rising action towards the climax. The climax is, in fact, just another mission. There’s no stakes, no urgency. And the ending? No falling action, and certainly not a good ending. It felt like a page was missing. Not sudden, just… lethargic.
From a standpoint of ‘things happen’, things are, at least, always happening. It’s an easy enough read (will cover the writing later on), and it does move along. It’s just rare it seems to be moving towards any certain goal.

Most things are flat-out unexplained

I kept waiting for exposition. It’s not a bad thing to have a fantasy story with minimal exposition; many people complain that most books have too many. But it has to then be clear within the text if it isn’t going to be explained. While I could guess what most things were, I was never certain. There was barely any worldbuilding at all, and with how long this book is, you’d think there would be a little room.

Demons have ‘levels’- unexplained. The network- unexplained. The Agency- unexplained. Soul stuff- barely explained. Contracts- barely explained. Demon blood levels- explained only right before they became relevant, at about the 80% mark.

There is no worldbuilding, no effort put into developing a culture for a city that dearly needs it. Instead, it’s just… a city. The text is very lax on descriptions, too, so I cannot tell you much more than that. It’s a city. There’s a countryside area near a river where the rich people live. I presume there’s skyscrapers.

We really only learn things right when they become important, which leads to an explanation of half-bloods coming comically late. Demons have a king- that’s a late revelation. It seems like demons have several rulers, actually, one for each country? But that’s never really explained! Demon kings have their right-hand men fight on their behalf to deal with civil complaints? What? That’s another thing introduced a page before it comes into the plot, and never really explained further.

When I think of various countries, a city, I think of cultures. What are people like in this country compared to the neighbors? What is the political climate? We know there’s a president, a congress, a senate… and a human king, also. What’s the history there? Do people speak other languages? How big is this country anyway?

And demons! What about them? Their culture? They must have varieties. How are they adapting? How does their culture clash? What are demon children like? Where is the demon ‘homeland’?

There’s mentions of Catholics, churches. People say ‘God’ and mention Heaven. Er. So how does religion cope with demons? What is a real life religion (Catholicism) doing in this fantasy world, again?

We don’t know. We know nothing! There is really so little worldbuilding, it’s nearly mind-boggling, especially for how long the book is.

Lex knows things the reader doesn’t

This ties to the above. Lex has secrets. She knows people, but won’t tell the reader how. She knows about the world, but doesn’t explain anything to us. It gets remarkably frustrating very quickly. She sees a man at a party- Damien! Who is he? Why does he seem to know her? Why does she know him?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It is something we eventually get an answer for, but it’s very late coming. We only learn what is plot relevant at the time (Which ruins many late game ‘twists’, where I flatly didn’t know how the revelation mattered, or what they meant.)

No one tells Lex anything

Worse, possibly: The entire book, no one tells Lex a goddamn thing. They refuse to, repeatedly, and while Lex gets upset… she still gets nothing. There isn’t even a good reason for this refusal. It’s all plot motivated, to keep her in the dark. Even by the end, she doesn’t have all the answers. (Verity and her lollies, anyone?)

Not even in a ‘save it for the sequels’ manner. Major plot questions are completely unaddressed, and she basically doesn’t get any answers, at all. Revelations that do happen are rarely explored (A big reveal about Sebastian around the 50% mark warrants a lot of questions that Lex never asks). I’d say we start getting a few answers about 80% in- and remember, this book is huge. 80% of it is like 135k of words.

There are many, many things Lex’s demon handlers seem to know about that they will not tell Lex about, and you know? They never do.

Notes on end game revelations: there’s several ‘twists’ near the end, big reveals that absolutely do not land. Even a smaller reveal about halfway, about Sebastian, relies on information the reader had not been informed of before that point. I won’t spoil it, but this is true for everything we learn at the end about what was going on- it’s so messily plotted, it’s hard to follow, but what there is is only things we’d just been informed of a page before.

I.E.: there is no set up for any big reveals, no hints of what is to come before hand, making the twists feel utterly irrelevant.

Lex is a faux action girl

I am glad Lex wasn’t top of her class, best in the world, a young prodigy- at the start, her team even advises her to train more before taking her exam. But the demons are very, very powerful, and also, her main foe. How can she possibly square up against them?

Simple: she can’t. And that’d be okay, if she wasn’t so darn determined to try, anyway. Lex starts off being a fighter who isn’t top of her class, but good. The rest of the book, she acts like a weapon-obsessed badass with one flaw: she’s not badass. She repeatedly is beaten to the ground, shot, stabbed, injured. She survives about three explosions. She should be dead, but her contract prevents her from dying- and she has Sebastion, an extremely powerful demon with healing powers, on her side.

He (or Verity, the other demon) save the day. Everytime, without fail. Basically, we have an action-focused protag who can’t actually do anything action-focused, and instead has to be constantly saved. Despite all her love for knives and guns, Lex isn’t capable of anything.

To be fair, the demons are unfairly powerful, as are the…. interdimensional soul robots that show up later. Both are resistant to bullets (but that doesn’t stop her from trying!)

Still, Lex seems to be sold as the tough, badass action girl… but is unable to hold her own at all, and has to rely on others to save her.

Sebastian

I hate demons named Sebastian. Also, demons named Damien.

This book was nice enough to give me both.

A demon named Damien is one of the dumbest, most stereotypical things you see in amateur fiction- I used to see it all the time on wattpad* and fictionpress. Same with Sebastian- a lot of Black Butler fans write about demons, and name a demon after Sebastian from that. I’ve never seen Black Butler, but the name has followed me like a curse. (It’s also just not a very appealing name).

I would like to quickly pull comparisons to this and BB though, just for a laugh:

  1. Seb is mildly like an aide to MC, who is lower royalty.
  2. he is very polite but a brutal killer and great defense
  3. he is a demon, MC is contracted to a demon (him in BB, a demon close to him in this)
  4. another demon shows up eventually, and she is eccentric/bubbly type
  5. MC is engaged to someone of higher royalty status for family connection reasons
  6. MC’s parents were murdered at a young age

The author has read Black Butler. I’m not saying they took from it (the genres are quite different), but the similarities are there, and I probably wouldn’t have noticed if he wasn’t named Sebastian.

Sebastian is not a butler in this, but he does come to the aid of Lex often. He is also the love interest, if you can call it that- I’m not really a fan of romance, but the monster boyfriend dynamic is exactly my jam. This is not that. There’s no romantic development between them until the 75% mark, and it, like many other things, appears forgotten not long after. The two do not appear to have any connection, interest, or chemistry, but do have a near-sex scene that I was not at all sold on. I guess I can be thankful their romantic interactions only lasted a few chapters.

He is frustratingly boring, though, even as a side character. He also leaves for a bit around the 25% mark, giving us Verity in return. And while it’s nice to see another female character (there aren’t many!), she serves no real purpose, and her inclusion feels entirely unnecessary.

*Wattpad! I love wattpad, but I hate wattpad (I am on wattpad). The author is from there, and I will give mild praise in that this story did not feel like a ‘wattpad book’. There wasn’t useless fawning over boys, at least, and Sebastian was never abusive or a plain dick to Lex. A tier above! Me bringing up wattpad is, trust me, not an attack on the author for starting there.

 Characters

Most of the writing is focused on the action, and Lex’s inner thoughts. Still, for a book this long, you’d think… there’d be some character development, right? Some changes, or arcs, for someone?

No. Lex at the beginning and Lex at the end are nearly the same person, some plot revelations aside. Sebastian does not change, nor does Verity- and neither seems to warm to Lex either. The other characters come and go so frequently and unreliably it’d be asking too much for them to be developed.

The route for Lex should have been easy, right? An Agent (presumably like a police officer in this world, it is unclear) who hates demons, but is forced to work with them. She’s weak and has to rely on them, and also solve mysteries in an effort to save her sister from a mysterious fate. In theory she’d learn more about demons- learn about their culture, accept and change her prejudice- as well as strive to become stronger, and adapt to her powerful foes.

But nope. This book is waves of the same, over and over again, including the same character beats. Lex angsts a little. She is determined to figure things out, frustrated no one is telling her things. She gets into a fight. She is saved by her demon pals, but then annoyed that they fail to answer questions. The scene ends and we move on.

Writing

My mind was boggled and blown by the use of colons and semi-colons in this book. Every single paragraph seemed to sport at least one of each. There is a semi-colon on nearly every page- over 700 in total. This is something that is liable to change in final edits, I need to note, but I am surprised it got this far. Colon use is not much better (600+ in the ARC). Never have I ever read something with that quantity. It was jarring and unsettling, honestly. Strange.

The writing style is short and snappy the entire time. While this means there isn’t any sloppy, flowery prose to wade through, it becomes tiring soon enough. For action scenes, short sentences help convey urgency. For regular scenes, they often become awkward and stilted.

The writing was very to the point, as well. There weren’t any moments that stood out as a lovely bit of prose, a nice bit of insight- you know, the sort of thing you might quote on an aesthetic post. While I found it very easy to read, and at first enjoyed it, it definitely lost its appeal as time went on.

(The general gist of this review does come down to the book being so long.)

There was a lack of description and exposition, as well and as covered. Scenes were often mostly dialogue, with a lot of emphasis on character movement and Lex’s internal thoughts. There wasn’t much scene dressing, or atmosphere building- just dialogue and action.

And the action was… sometimes difficult to follow. Generally I got the gist: bullets were fired, some people die. A few scenes were well done, interesting, to a degree tense. As it went on, more seemed to simply happen, not play out, and I wasn’t very engaged in it.

Conclusion

While I was interested in this book, and it nearly had me for the first part, I was soon lost and soured by its length and seeming purposeless ambition. It feels like it needs another round of edits- if 60k were to be cut, several characters, several plot threads…. quite a lot were to be cut and restructured, I could have really like it. I think for now I can just say: refer to the above.

As unfortunate as it was, there were too many things that failed me in this book. The lack of worldbuilding, the repetitive action, the lack of drive, the lack of urgency- it seemed to meander until it came to a jarring, tired end. In some ways, I am confused by this book, which clearly could have been good after a few more edits. In some ways, I’ve even been hoping there was a mistake- that I’d accidentally been sent the first draft, not final.

As nice as it’d be, no. And I hate to leave reviews like this, but it appears I have to.

Can you still enjoy it? Perhaps. I’d like some people to. I just can’t recommend it to anyone. It’s too long, too sloppy (there is one explicit plothole)…. if you think it sounds interesting, and like action-focused stories about mysterious demons, maybe this is the book for you. Potentially.

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