Book: “Within These Wicked Walls” by Lauren Blackwood
Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, October 2021
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: What the heart desires, the house destroys…
Andromeda is a debtera—an exorcist hired to cleanse households of the Evil Eye. When a handsome young heir named Magnus Rochester reaches out to hire her, Andromeda quickly realizes this is a job like no other, with horrifying manifestations at every turn, and that Magnus is hiding far more than she has been trained for. Death is the most likely outcome if she stays, but leaving Magnus to live out his curse alone isn’t an option. Evil may roam the castle’s halls, but so does a burning desire.
Kiersten White meets Tomi Adeyemi in this Ethiopian-inspired debut fantasy retelling of Jane Eyre.
Review: It’s come up on here before, specifically way back when during a joint review of “Jane Steele”, that I really love the book “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë. The Gothic setting and sensibilities, the tough and clever heroine, the admittedly problematic but still, to me, swoony leading man, it’s a book that I hold near and dear to my heart. I am always on the look out for reimaginings, and while some have been good, others have been not, so it always feels like a risk when I dive in. But I kind of knew from the jump that “Within These Wicked Walls” by Lauren Blackwood was going to work for me, because it was not only a retelling based in a non-Western centric gaze, it had ‘exorcist’ in the description. Our Jane equivalent as an exorcist sent to cleanse a haunted manor? Um, HELL YES.
As mentioned, our protagonist Andromeda, or Andi, is a debtera, a trained religious figure who performs exorcisms of people and places. She was taken in by Jember, a volatile and world weary debtera who has been her only connection to others, though his work has left him bitter, cruel, and sometimes flat out abusive to Andromeda. Her life up until this point has made her determined to succeed on her own, and very standoffish around other people. I makes her an interesting protagonist to follow because not only does she have to prove herself to Jember, but she also needs to show herself that she can do these things that she’s been trained to do. It becomes all the more complicated when she arrives at Thorne Manor, as not only is this house INCREDIBLY cursed by the Evil Eye, it also has an occupant, Magnus Rochester, that Andromeda finds herself very taken with. As Andi finds out just how dangerous the spirits and demons are within Thorne Manor, she also finds out that she can make connections with people, like Magnus, and the mysterious but incredibly kind servant Saba. This makes the stakes for Andi all the higher, and it makes it so she perhaps doesn’t realize just how in over her head she may be, despite her prowess and very well honed talents. I definitely liked her relationship with Rochester, as their banter and even footed wits and personalities was very fun to watch. But I was actually more interested in the complicated and sad relationship that she had with Jember, her mentor. As mentioned their interactions are dark and deeply broken, but Blackwood doesn’t opt for easy, black and white lessons or answers when it comes to their relationship. Jember is not good to Andi, it can’t be denied, but I liked how looking into his work as a debtera and through his past traumas kind of give him a lot of depth and complexity.
I also liked the magical systems at play, as well as the setting. Make no mistake, we are not finding ourselves in the Moors for this book, as we are actually in an alternate timeline (I think?) Ethiopia. But the isolation is still there, as are the questions about one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and the fighting of demons within one’s own spirit (as well as literal demons thanks to the Evil Eye resting squarely on Magnus and his home). I know so little about the culture and debteras, but Blackwood lays out the root of the mythology as well as building a fantasy system on top of it. It leads to some pretty creepy demon stuff, as well as interesting magical components that set this firmly into a ‘dark fantasy’ realm. Blackwood has many moments that were tense and scary, and it all felt really well imagined and focused.
I definitely get some of the critiques I’ve seen that question as to whether or not this can really be considered a retelling of “Jane Eyre”, mostly because I do think that you have to look for the parallels beyond the obvious names of Thorne Manor and Rochester. I do argue that they are there, even if they have been tweaked a little bit. While there isn’t a hidden wife in the attic, there is a hidden relationship. Andi may not be a governess but she is a person from one part of society dropped into a highly dysfunctional upper class setting. The simmering and constantly tested romance is alive and well (and once again very easy to root for). It may not be a clear step by step retelling, but, unlike other retellings I’ve encountered in YA literature, at least it feels like it does have the guts and soul of the source material, as opposed to just using it and trying to force it into the box. Maybe ‘reframing’ is a better word.
Overall I enjoyed “Within These Wicked Walls”. It brought fantastical and creepy layers to a Gothic classic, and it had the spirit of the source material while turning the story into something that is very much its own tale.
Rating 8: Immersive, creepy, and incredibly engaging, “Within These Wicked Walls” is a unique and well done reframing of one of my favorite Gothic novels.
“Within These Wicked Walls” is included on the Goodreads lists “Jane Eyre Retellings”, and “2021 Fantasy and Science Fiction by Black Authors”.