Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood | Young Adult Fiction/Fantasy | Wednesday Books | 336 pages | Review by Kerine Wint
Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood is a fantastic Ethiopian-inspired fantasy retelling of the classic Jane Eyre. In the novel, readers follow Andromeda, a debtera – an exorcist trained to purge households of cursed manifestations of the Evil Eye. On her own, after being abandoned by her mentor and guardian, Jember, Andromeda is recruited by Magnus Rochester to cleanse the castle he has inherited from his father. This YA novel does not hold back on the elements of gothic horror and romance in the midst of Andromeda finding her way on her own.
The Ethiopian Influence
Within These Wicked Walls extends readers’ landscape of fantasy and mythology past Greeks, Romans, wands, and staffs. The details of the magic system in the novel and its ties to religion are well-explained. Debteras are, in fact, legitimate components of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Andromeda’s natural calling to the craft allows for intimate moments that reveal its intricacies. Fittingly, these moments slow the pace of the story down, which allows the reader to get a better understanding of the world Blackwood has built; it creates tension in high-stakes, action-heavy scenes.
Blackwood skillfully introduces the profession of the debtera by incorporating their other duties at the periphery of the narrative in a way that leaves the reader intrigued but not distracted. This choice of a magic system worked well within this “haunted house” genre, reinvigorating the standard exorcism procedure.
Bring On the Gothic Romance
Magnus Rochester, the filthy rich, spoiled, but haunted host appears in the midst of Andromeda’s cleaning of his far too large castle. Magnus delivers the snarky banter, pompous outbursts, and requests whilst having some disturbing secrets that unfold throughout the story. The chemistry between Andromeda and Magnus is undeniable and the rising stakes as mysteries unravel and the Evil Eye unleashes its wrath, make their relationship worth rooting for. When Andromeda recognizes a power imbalance between the two, Blackwood takes care to give Andromeda enough agency to look past her feelings for Magnus. The collision of their lives keeps the last third of the book intense with emotion, revelations, and sacrifice.
The Concept of Family
A major theme throughout the book is the need to feel loved. Outside of the romance, familial ties are vital to how Andromeda and Magnus, interact with each other and the world around them. Their ideas on what makes a “good parent” are often at odds with one another and believably so. It is revealed early on that Andromeda was sold by her birth parents when she was five. Her guardian, Jember, not only raised her but also trained her as a debtera. Their tumultuous relationship is littered with “tough love”, and unspoken feelings. Because Jember suffers from nerve damage, making all skin-to-skin touch unbearable, Andromeda has never experienced a true embrace until Magnus. This lack of physical affection morphed into the aforementioned “tough love” as Jember would dole out harsh lessons, brash reprimands, and often simulate dangerous situations, such as drowning, to build Andromeda’s survival skills. Blackwood really leans into the complexity of the relationship through Andromeda’s mixed feelings of both resentment and love. We see her often think about her harsh upbringing while unable to deny how much Jember provided for her. Magnus, in contrast, has no desire to empathize with his father and finds more constructive forms of love in his housemaid, Peggy. At no point does the book preach a right or wrong way for a family to exist, thus endearing us to these depictions that feel flawed but real.
Within These Wicker Walls includes both horror, with its threats of death, dangerous Manifestations, and surprising on-page gore, and romance in an unexpected meeting under unfortunate circumstances. Gothic is the perfect umbrella to wrap this narrative in, blending an attention-grabbing fantasy with enough mysteries to keep you turning the page. Lauren Blackwood leaves her mark on the fantasy genre with this solid debut.