Here Be Monsters...
Trigger Warnings for sexual assault and abuse
I decided to take a break from historical romance and delve into a young adult fantasy this weekend. I have a love-hate relationship with young adult fiction. While some YA fiction is my absolute favorite, other rely too much on love stories and tropes. However, I was optimistic heading into this novel.
Kara Barbieri started this novel and her writing endeavors on Wattpad, a platform that allows writers to release content and gain readers that may lead to a book contract. After success on this site Barbieri’s novel was revised, expanded, and published by Wednesday books, a sub-imprint of Macmillian.
Barbieri’s debut novel takes place in the Permafrost, which provides a magical and brutal wintry atmosphere. White Stag tells the story of 17 year old Jenneke, a thrall enslaved to a goblin for 100 years after her village was pillaged and her family murdered. Jenneke accompanies her current master, Soren, to a gathering of goblins and during their visit the goblin king dies thus beginning the hunt for a new Erlking. This is a literal hunt. The competitors must hunt and kill the white stag, a symbol of Permafrost power, or risk becoming a casualty to the hunt. Soren is a powerful and devilishly handsome goblin and he requests that Jenneke joins the hunt with him. Jenneke is reluctant as a human thrall whose sole desire is to escape and go back to the human world. She physically and mentally carries the scars of abuse by her previous master as well as survivor’s guilt due to being the lone survivor from the attack on her village. Questing, hunting, and bloody action sequences ensue all framed around a developing love story à la Twilight.
After digesting this novel, I’m afraid this is a novel that didn’t work for me. I can see some folks really loving it but here’s why I didn’t.
First, while most YA fantasy will not have the depth of world building that adult high fantasy does, this felt lacking to me. Vague Nordic mythology is used throughout but not enough depth was provided as how it all worked together. There are references to Odin and Skadi but not much else related to religion or belief in the book. Additionally, goblins gain powers via killing things and taking their power. Again, perhaps I’m being too critical, but this vague “power” absorption did not work for me. Much like my dislike of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval, all the the world building was too hazy and undefined for my liking. There were interesting tidbits throughout but they were briefly glossed over.
Along these lines, when the book opens the reader ascertains that from the human perspective goblins are evil and bloodthirsty. However, part way through the story the tone changes from “they’re all evil “ to “well only some of them are evil”. On the one hand I can understand Jenneke’s perspective changing as she meets different goblins but I keep coming back to the detail that she’s lived in the goblin realm for 100 years. You’re telling me that in 100 years she never encounter a goblin that might alter her perception?
The plot left me dissatisfied. I felt like it meandered and changed direction without a lot of realistic character development. Jenneke learns different revelations about herself and Soren throughout the book and I felt like her sudden change of heart and decisions weren’t entirely plausible. Additionally, I was rather uncomfortable with the brutality of the sexual abuse and felt like it was excessive for a YA novel.
Moreover, I almost didn’t finish this book after the first few chapters I almost stopped completely. I pushed on because sometimes the best books don’t have the best beginnings. Alas, while I did finish the book I was not satisfied. Supposedly, this is the first book in a series but I cannot foresee myself picking up any further books.
Well on to the next book!