Summary: Arden Lesstymine (known to everyone as Trouble) likes attention as much as the next girl, but this is getting ridiculous. When an insane stranger is murdered at the inn where she works, Trouble becomes the next Soulbearer for the disembodied god of chaos, Loku. Yes, it comes with the ability to channel the god’s limitless power, but at the cost of her sanity — literally. Now she has a sexy but cynical knight claiming to be her protector, a prince trying to seduce her to his cause (and his bed), and a snarky chaos god who offers a play-by-play commentary on it all, whether she wants to hear it or not. To make matters worse, a necromancer wants to capture the soul of Loku for his own dark purposes, and the only way he can get it is by killing her first.
Review: I have to say this right off the bat: I’m a sucker for trickster deities. So when I read the description of this book, it caught my attention effortlessly. Trickster god, multiple souls in a single body, snarky commentary? This had the potential to trip some of my major happy triggers.
And from early on in the book, I could tell that the author had some good skill with words and storytelling. The quality of the writing was the kind that I have come to expect from traditionally-published novels, which instantly sets it apart from many other self-published offerings, both in the SPFBO challenge and outside it. Description was clear, dialogue realistic, and the main character — a woman named Arden but nicknamed Trouble for her bad luck — seemed like she’d be pretty interesting once she ended up unwittingly becoming the vessel for the soul of a dead god.
And the writing did remain consistently good throughout. But what quickly became clear to me the more I read was that there was a great deal of slut-shaming and sexism that really didn’t sit well with me.
Arden is from a a kingdom that draws clear inspiration from most generic European-based fantasy settings, right alongside the gender politics that tend to go hand-in-hand with that type of world. Women are second-class citizens, inferior in status to males, highly prized for their virginity and ability to produce a family and obey the men in their lives. This is done to the point that if a woman gets cast out by the man or men who rule over her life, she has no safety net, no backup plan. It’s extremely rare that anyone wants anything to do with her, seeing her as immoral and worthless, and often women in that situation turn to prostitution in order to make ends meet. While that’s a difficult setting to read about, I have no problem with it per se, because that kind of backdrop can create some really interesting stories, and not every culture built in a fantasy world has to be ideal and equal in order to be worth telling stories about.
But it grated on my nerves every time people thought or said aloud that Arden was a whore because she was traveling with a man she wasn’t married to. By that society, she couldn’t be anything else, so the smirks and snide comments came hard and fast, and even when Arden or her protector — an elven knight named Dev, who is by her side because he’s the guardian of the god Loku — protested the accusations, people just kept repeating them. Realistic for that society, absolutely, but it was very uncomfortable to read because women in the real world face that kind of stigma on a daily basis already.
This would have been uncomfortable enough, until you bring Loku’s mental commentary into it. Loku likes to taunt. And be a bit cruel to. He’s a deity of chaos, and it’s to be expected that he enjoys screwing with minds. But most of his mental comments to Arden consisted of telling her how much of a “wanton slut” she was for finding any man attractive. When a womanizing prince who doesn’t know how to take no for an answer is added to the story and Arden finds herself attracted to him (and both leading males to her), Loku’s commentary stays much the same, except for one scene in which he tells he she’d better pick one of them to sleep with soon, or else they’ll make the decision for her.
The only other women in the story are a shrill princess who doesn’t like people wearing similar clothes to her, and a woman in the second chapter who gives herself to the antagonist to escape death. As far as gender goes, it’s far from balanced, and filled with men being blatantly misogynist and occasionally treating women as literal objects, picking them up and moving them to one side when it’s more convenient for them.
It was tough to read. I found myself enjoying the book less and less as it went on.
Add to the fact that while Arden isn’t a Mary Sue, she’s only a few steps removed from being so. She’s exotically blonde and blue-eyed in a kingdom where most people have brown hair and eyes (no mention of skin colour, but everyone seems pretty well coded as white), she’s spent her whole life repressing her forbidden magic skills but still has one of the deepest inner wells of magic that Dev has ever seen, and she spends about a week being trained on swordwork before becoming, in the words of a prince who’s spent most of his life training, a master of the art. She’s being hunted by a necromancer who wants to kill her and steal Loku’s soul from her, for reasons that never get explained. I can assume that he thinks having Loku reside in him will give him greater power, but it’s never said outright, and Arden never thinks to question why Sulaino is chasing her down. He was a generic bad guy with a mission and no clear motivation behind it, so I found it difficult to get excited about the hurried escapes and battles against the undead.
But the writing was good, and I found myself in the awkward position of being able to praise many of the technical aspects while really disliking much of the content. I can’t deny that McHugh has a good deal of skill, and for that I find this a very hard novel to rate. If my above gripes aren’t the sorts of things that will bother you, then you’ll likely find this to be quite an engaging fantasy romance, with a plot that moves along a little unevenly but still at a decent pace. If you’re like me and find all this talk uncomfortable or triggering, then you’re going to find A Soul for Trouble to be very problematic.
In an attempt to be as objective as possible, I’m rating this one 7/10, to try to blend my praise for the good writing with my distaste for the unquestioned sexism throughout. It’s not one I’m interested in continuing with (this is the first book in a series), nor is it one I can really recommend, but it does have some redeeming elements, and the content will probably not bother ever reader. It just really didn’t sit well with me, and I didn’t enjoy it in the end.