(3.5/5⭐️) “We're all monsters to someone or something by some definition. It's the context of the situation that matters.” When presented with two decisions that feel logically impossible to make, follow the one your heart leads you to.” -Kara Barbieri
This story begins with Janneke and Soren, the death of the Earlking, and the start of the hunt for the White Stag. We are left to fill in the back story as we go along, learning about Janneke and her harrowing past. One hundred years prior, Janneke was taken captive by a lethal race of goblins living in the Permafrost. Her first captor, Lyndian tortured, raped, and brutalized her before giving her away to his nephew Soren, who is very different. Soren sees Janneke as a friend and companion. He brings her along for the stag hunt, though she is against taking part. During the hunt, Janneke must make the ultimate decision. She can leave her humanity behind and accept life with the goblins, or she can forsake the Permafrost and live a human life.
“I won't lie and say my kind are never monstrous. Just that we're only as monstrous as your kind are.” The prevailing theme throughout this book is the question of, “What exactly is a monster?” I found that this theme fit well with the plot and ideas of the book. I appreciated that Janneke was facing more monsters than one, her biggest being the monster of her past: Lyndian.
The Permafrost is home to goblins. These are beings of immense power who look beautiful on the outside but are truly monstrous on the inside. When they fight, their power shows through and their bodies morph into something terrifying. The goblins cannot create, build, or make things because they are beings of war and brutality. Thus, they require humans to do all the other work that they cannot. They frequently raid, pillage, and burn villages surrounding the Permafrost. In such a way, they take slaves to do this work for them. This is how Janneke comes to be in the Permafrost. Her village is burned and she is the only survivor. I found this concept intriguing and creative.
I enjoyed Janneke’s relationship with Soren. Their budding romance. The fact that he loved her despite her physical flaws, like the many scars she had. It was also refreshing to have a character that wasn’t pretty, like so many these days. A lot of their banter left me smiling. It was fun and entertaining. But there were flaws with their portrayal on page. They both lacked depth in certain areas. I came away from the story not knowing a lot about them personally.
Janneke suffered from severe physical torture, brutality, and rape. There are several flashbacks that show this. Nothing too graphic but could be if you are someone who suffered from similar experiences. This fatal scar of Janneke’s defines her throughout the story. She suffers from severe PDSD (as is expected from something like this). What I didn’t like was that this was the only thing that I really learned about her. This, for me, was a flaw of the story. I felt that it was frequently being thrown in my face as a reason to make me pity her. Of course I pitied her, and didn’t need repetitive reminding time after time of what had happened to her. It felt like a way to cover up a lack of depth to her character. I would have appreciated knowing more about the things she did enjoy, other facets of her personality, and other things she was good at. However, this in no way deterred me from the book.
I did appreciate that she was a badass warrior. That was actually something I enjoyed the most about the story. I love a female hero who can hold her own. She never needed Soren to bail her out. She was independent. I could relate to that on a deep level, being independent myself. But again, what else was there to know about her? A strong warrior with a brutal past. But surely there was more? I wanted something that made her more human in my eyes. Maybe I’m just being picky here...
Soren was also lacking depth. While I liked him, and he was sexy, I am disappointed that I didn’t really learn much about him. Some snippets about his past. But with a creature as old as him, surely there was a great deal of rich detail that could have been added to give him more depth.
I also felt that the world building was lacking in a few ways. I don’t want to name everything but some examples are: I never understood why the stag was so important. Yes, it symbolized the power of the Earlking. But why? Why a stag and not a mountain lion or a bear? Or some other animal? I never learned why goblins could not handle iron. Why was iron lethal to them? Why was Janneke able to live for 100 years as a human when all other humans died early? It’s hinted that her strong will to survive allowed her to survive. But hell! I’m a human with a strong will to survive!! Super strong! I’d love to live forever. So why am I still aging? Obviously there’s some magic involved in the Permafrost that’s helping her not age. But an explanation could have been added. Still, despite the flawed world building, this book really hooked me and kept me reading.
Kara Barbieri’s writing was LOVELY. I enjoyed her prose. There were several beautifully written paragraphs that really impressed me coming from a debut author. “The oak is the strongest tree in the forest, but the willow bends and adapts. When the fires and storms hit, it is the willow that survives.” WOW. I always enjoy using quotes in my reviews, and it was difficult to pick only a few. That’s when you know an author has great prose!
The ending of the book took me by surprise and I enjoyed it. It was a happily ever after but in a different way than I was expecting. I appreciated this. I’m interested to see where the second book will go. I think I’ll read it when it comes out.
Overall, I really struggled to determine a star rating for this book. I keep teetering between 3.5 and 4. I even decided to write out my review first before deciding on a star rating. IF STARS WERE GIVEN FOR ENJOYMENT ALONE, THIS WOULD BE A 5 STAR READ FOR ME. However, there were some definite flaws that I couldn’t see past, which are all mentioned above, requiring me to dock 1.5 stars. If you are someone who is triggered by rape, this might NOT be the book for you. Again, there’s very little graphically portrayed, but it’s there. BUT, if you like dark fantasy, badass hero chicks, and beautiful goblins, you’ll really enjoy this one. I highly recommend it. Moreover, I am SO excited for the second book in the series. I have a feeling that with Kara Barbieri’s growth as an author, it’s going to be even more spell-binding. Keep an eye out for it. It’s coming November 3, 2020!