Within These Wicked Walls, Lauren Blackwood (Wednesday Books 978-1-250-78710-1, $18.99, hc 336pp) November 2021.
The publicity materials for Lauren Blackwood’s Within These Wicked Walls describe the book as an “Ethiopian-inspired debut retelling of Jane Eyre.” If you aren’t a fan of Charlotte Bronte’s classic this might put you off the book, whereas, if you are a fan, you might be instantly concerned that the marketing machine is overreaching. My first job with this review, then, is to reassure everyone that not only does Within These Wicked Walls live up to the comparison, it is also an enthralling gothic tale that will appeal to readers with no knowledge of Thornfield Hall, destitute governesses, or, thank goodness, the cliched “mad woman in the attic.” Personally, I’m not a fan of Jane Eyre, but I have many positive things to say about Blackwood’s book. This is a novel that brings mystery, romance, bloody horror, and magic together with a fast-paced plot and dynamic setting and succeeds on every level. It works; the whole dark story works.
Andromeda is an exorcist who is hired to banish the Evil Eye from cursed houses. Cut off from her mentor due to an ugly earlier confrontation and without an important license to obtain important work on her own, she is starving and desperate when she accepts a job offer from Magnus Rochester. The infamous cursed Englishman lives isolated in a dark, cold castle in the middle of a desert. (This castle is an extreme oddity, set in a land distant from England, but Blackwood does an excellent job of explaining how it, and its owner, ended up there.) He has removed himself and his household of loyal servants from all society because the Evil Eye Manifestations in his home are so dangerous and violent. “The Waking begins at ten o’clock sharp, and everyone must be locked in their rooms by then,” Andi is told ominously by Rochester’s housekeeper. Confident in her training, she thinks she can handle whatever it is that walks the halls at night and scoffs at the warning. Andi soon realizes she was wrong, however: no one has been trained to handle the castle’s horrors, which, as it turns out, was why she was given the job in the first place.
As Andi gets to work, she witnesses numerous disturbing events and eventually uncovers what has been happening to Rochester’s servants, most of whom have been “disappearing” in recent months. She also finds herself falling for her employer, a young man who labors under a curse that was placed on his father and who has a ton of money but nevertheless can’t seem to do a thing to prevent his grim future. Andi wants to save him, she wants to save everyone in the castle, but the curse is strong and with each chapter the situation gets more intense until even her own survival is in doubt.
Lauren Blackwood nails so many aspects of this novel, from the complex but clear world building to its unique craft-based magic and the inclusion of nuanced and engaging characters, even those who are less than sympathetic. There is even a dose of humorous but biting social interplay that seems right out of a Bronte novel and allows the author to introduce the issue of racial conflict and class structure at just the right moments. Andi wins these confrontations, of course, and seeing her do it is great fun indeed.
Within These Wicked Walls is the best sort of historical fantasy, it draws the reader into a familiar yet imagined world and firmly keeps them there as events unspool in a deliciously terrifying way. There are plenty of action-packed surprises, some affecting personal revelations about the main characters, and Andi is a strong heroine who, in my opinion, leaves Jane Eyre in the dust. This is Lauren Blackwood’s first book, and I cannot wait to read what comes next.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the December 2021 issue of Locus.
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