Review | The Half Killed – Quenby Olson

About the Book

Dorothea Hawes has no wish to renew contact with what lies beyond the veil. After an attempt to take her own life, she has retired into seclusion, but as the wounds on her body heal, she is drawn back into a world she wants nothing more than to avoid.

She is sought out by Julian Chissick, a former man of God who wants her help in discovering who is behind the gruesome murder of a young woman. But the manner of death is all too familiar to Dorothea, and she begins to fear that something even more terrible is about to unleash itself on London. 

And so Dorothea risks her life and her sanity in order to save people who are oblivious to the threat that hovers over them. It is a task that forces her into a confrontation with her own lurid past, and tests her ability to shape events frighteningly beyond her control.

Published on August 13, 2015
Buy the book

This book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.


I just finished this book last night, and I knew the first thing I wanted to do this morning was write a review for it. Reason being? I just really loved this book that much, and all I want to do is tell you why all of you should read it. 

The Half Killed is a historical fantasy, that leans into the history and sort of flirts with the fantasy. Kind of. Set in a grimy Victorian-era London, the atmosphere is what grabbed me right away, which was unexpected. Truthfully, I have a really hard time with books set in this era. I don’t typically read them, and I usually get so frustrated by how stuffy they are that I just can’t. However, Olson, I’m realizing, basically took everything I typically don’t like about books set in the Victorian (or similar) era and lit it on fire. Within two chapters, I knew this was a book I’d love. Within three, I couldn’t put it down.

Now, before we go on to the meat and potatoes of the book, I want to touch on the atmosphere and setting. Nothing is wasted here, and while Olson can get a bit wordy with descriptions I never got bothered by that. In fact, there were a lot of times when I just had to sit back and admire how she used words. And, let’s be real here. If you’ve read any of my books, you’d know lengthy descriptions full of uniquely placed words is just about the last thing on the planet that would bother me. And oh, do I love lyrical prose no matter the form they take. I just love them.

“There is a second when I think that I want to commit everything about this moment to memory, every sound and smell, the weight of the clothing on my limbs, the dampness of the hair clinging to the back of my neck. But I don’t want to remember any of these things. I want it to be over. All of it. And I want it to be done now.”

That being said, the descriptions really brought this grimy London to life. The Half Killed is one of those books where the city becomes as much of a character as the people themselves. Under Olson’s eye, knack for detail, and careful care with the placement of every word, London of Dorothea’s time comes alive, and breaths both on and off the page. More, I could tell how much research Olson did, not just to nail down the setting, but on all of it, from setting to vernacular to mannerisms. There are so many small details, so many nuances of speech that just sang out to me as genuine and real. This tells me the author did a ton of work to make this feel not just unique, but true to the time, and it worked really, really well. 

The Half Killed is a slow burn novel. What gripped me first was the atmosphere, as I’ve said. Then Dorothea’s voice. She’s snarky and opinionated, she absolutely steals the show and is the perfect vessel from which this story spills forth. Dorothea is a strong, independent woman in a world where that really isn’t a thing (and her landlord’s constant suspicion underscores that, while adding some color to the book). 

Dorothea is not just a simple protagonist. She has quite a few layers and the blustery, up front, snarky strength of her personality serves to mask a lot of what is going on underneath. The pain. The heartache. The yearning for what could have been. It took a bit of time for me to realize that Dorothea herself was just as much of a mystery as the mystery the book is focused on. It was honestly quite well done, and by the time Olson was done deftly pulling apart all the things that made up Dorothea’s crusty exterior to show readers the soft, terrified woman who is riddled by pain and haunted by ghosts of the past that lay underneath, I was… astounded. 

“It may have escaped your notice at some point during our acquaintance, but I am a woman. And as shocking as it may be for you to believe, I have seen myself naked on more than one occasion, so you’ll pardon me if I am not offended by anything these ladies have to offer.” 

You see, what you really need to know about this book is that it sneaks up on you. There is just so much here. So on the surface you’ve got a mystery in the heart of grimy Victorian London. You’ve got an ex-priest and a woman who talks a lot trying to figure it out. Complete with ghosts and seances and plenty of colorful secondary characters, you’ve got a recipe for a whole lot of fun. 

And it is fun, don’t get me wrong. This book, once I really got into it, absolutely flew by. It was nearly impossible to put down. I was locked in this weird place where I was completely engrossed in the plot, while being enamored with how Olson used words. 

However. 

If you just read this book for that surface stuff, you’ll really like it, but you’ll miss all the sleight of hand that Olson is also doing. Lots of subtle development here, lots of slow revelations and details that make this book truly something to behold. Dorothea, for example, was a character I knew I’d love from the second chapter on. However, by the end of the book my understanding of her as a woman in the world, as a human who exists, as a person standing on her own two feet was far different than it was when I went into the book, and I loved the fact that Olson could not only have a developed character, but continue developing her throughout the book, in such a subtle way that I often didn’t notice it was happening until after it had happened. 

Mixed into this, we have the ex-priest, Julian Chissick. Chissick took me some time to warm up to. He’s kind of stuffy, very concerned with propriety. The fact that he’s coming to Thea tells you he’s desperate for help and completely out of his comfort zone. Their relationship is uncomfortable at first and takes some time for them to warm up to each other. Chissick’s desire to be a protector is both natural to the time, where that is very much a thing men were taught, and also feels true to the character himself. The fact that Dorothea kept bucking propriety gave him quite a challenge, and it also led to a few humorous moments. By the end of the book, I liked Chissick a lot more than I thought I would. He was the perfect mitigating balance to Dorothea’s headstrong, take charge nature.

You might wonder why I haven’t said much about the plot, and it’s because I didn’t know what I was getting going into this and I think that was half the fun. Suffice it to say, there’s a murder, and it involves a lot of spiritualism. I think this book would qualify, maybe, as historical fantasy and/or paranormal, but I’m not really sure. It is one of those books that doesn’t quite fit anywhere, and as such, it makes me love it all the more. Yay for bucking trends and refusing to be pigeonholed. 

“I was so young.” And I wince at this poor excuse, as if every sin can be readily forgiven so long as it was committed well before the last of a person’s molars have broken through.

In the end, The Half Killed was a book I went into expecting to hate, largely due to my aversion for all things Victorian. I left this book half in love, and also reassessing my lack of love for the Victorian era. The writing was superb. The characterization was off the charts amazing. The plot was slow, which might frustrate some readers, but I honestly think it needed to be this way and I appreciated the time taken to set things up and introduce me to the characters and world.

I decided that what I think actually dislike about so many Victorian books is how romanticized things are, which is just completely historically inaccurate. Unless you were one of the ultra-wealthy, Victorian London was a hotbed of strife, crime, sewage in the street, prostitution, cursing, disease, and violence. And while Olson does not glorify any of that, she does paint a picture that is far more in line with the history I have read, and I absolutely loved it. Not only is there truth in this book, but there’s also an incredible story and a phenomenal amount of stunning detail. 

And all those incredible words.

Be still, my heart.

So, The Half Killed is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. Halloween is coming up, so maybe it’s time for you to give it a shot during this most appropriate of seasons. 

5/5 stars