Reading this right after a very, very good and a very, very bad book (The Poppy War and For the Wolf respectively) gave me a little perspective on how to review this attempt at a Jane Eyre retelling, supposedly Ethiopian-inspired. I even started out enjoying the book but when none of the promises made by the author and publisher were delivered, my rating dropped pretty drastically. Plus, I don’t have the patience for artificial romantic drama anymore.
WITHIN THESE WICKED WALLS
by Lauren Blackwood
Published: Wednesday Books, 2021
eBook: 352 pages
My rating: 3/10
Opening line: Sweltering heat hit me like the sudden leap of the bonfire when I traded the protection of the mule-drawn cart’s tarp for urning sand.
What the heart desires, the house destroys…
Kiersten White meets Tomi Adeyemi in this Ethiopian-inspired debut fantasy retelling of Jane Eyre.
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.
I wish I could tell you something about this book but, unfortunately, if I say “lazy YA romance” you’ll know all there is to know. But wait, this is sold as a remix of Jane Eyre – one of my favorite classics – set in an Ethiopian-inspired world with magic and demons and stuff. So let’s look at that and unravel each of this book’s problems and all those broken promises.
It begins with the fact that have no idea where this story is set. To be fair, the setting doesn’t matter to the plot one bit. Because it begins with Andromeda arriving in the desert, on her way to the castle where she is going to work as a debetera (read: exorcist). There may be a few lines talking about a desert and hot weather and such, but once she’s at the castle, which is described pretty much like a castle in England, the setting stops mattering. Add to that the inhabitants of said castle. There are a few servants, none of whom we get to know properly, a couple of guests, and of course the master of the house, who happens to be a teenager. At least I think so because it’s never made really clear except when the he mentions he’s not 21 yet. He is English and he is called Magnus and Andi calls him “sir” although she also calls him by his first name. Which leads me to me not knowing when this is set either.
Many things could have been explained away if this had been a secondary world fantasy setting but it’s definitely not. Real-world cities are mentioned by name (London, Paris, Pargue). This being sold as a “Jane Eyre retelling” made my mind jump to the 19th century as I was struggling to grasp the power structure, the social status, and the customs of this story. That was an exercise in futility as nothing makes much sense in this book.
Added to the complete lack of world building, the characters are also bland with very little backtory. And what there is actually contracdicts itself over and over. Let’s take Andi who we learn very little about and most of it much too late in the novel, but let’s look at what we know: She was sold by her parents when she was very small. A highly skilled debtera named Jember bought her and raised her to fight the Evil Eye as well. He was far from loving and kind but she lived with him all her life, she has childhood memories, somegood, som enot good at all. They live in a cellar beneath the church (don’t know what kind of church, the author never elaborates) and they are paid by the church because exorcism is good I guess.
Despite this, Andi mentions over and over how she used to live “on the street” and that she has such brilliant “survival skills” – which paints a completely different picture of her childhood than the one we were told about before. It makes no sense. Either you lived on the street, had to steal food and fight for your life (literally) or Jember raised you, without love but with a roof over your head and lots of demon fighting lessons.
But even if we disregard Andi’s tale of two childhoods, what we see and what we are told of who she is now also doensn’t go together. She calls herself strong and stubborn and tough as nails, yet I swear she spends the entire second half of this book sobbing at the slightest provocation. And I’m not saying its bad for a protagonist to show emotion or to cry – not at all – but don’t paint he as this hard person who can take anything without flinching when that’s obviously not who she is.
What could have redeemed this was the fact that it’s a Jane Eyre remix. Oh boy, let me tell you about how that went. So the story is about Andi taking on the job to cleanse Magnus’ big ass mansion from the Evil Eye, which comes to possess buildings (and people apparently) when they commit a cardinal sin. Magnus si richer than anybody has a right to be so his sin is greed, thus the Evil Eye. (More on the use of Catholicism later).
The Evil Eye shows up as manifestations but every room has its own one that can’t leave – nobody explains why or how. So one room may have hands coming out fo the wallpaper, being all creepy and grabby. Another might be drenched in blood, also creepy and a bitch to clean up. The slightly more dangerous kind manifests as human-looking creatures, such as the librarian who mostly just hurls books at Andi which I’m sure is unpleasant but nowhere near the life-threatening situation it’s presented as… Now Andi’s job is to cleanse these rooms by going into them and, while the manifestation is present, making an amulet. Those are small silver disks which she welds – I guess to make a pattern or something, it’s never explained, sorry – and then she also has to use string to wrap around the amulet with a needle? But sometimes she also paints them? I don’t think I’m a particularly stupid or inattentive reader but you can probably tell I have no idea what exactly she is doing and the author didn’t take the time to explain it properly. Because wh have to rush through certain plot beats of Jane Eyre as quickly as possible instead!
So Andi meets Magnus and they have a bit of banter going, which I actually quite enjoyed. It was early times in the book and I still had hopes that all my burning questions (such as basic world building) would be answered later. But what follows is a series of out of the blue changes in behaviour between the two for no apparent reason other than that’s how it goes in Jane Eyre. But where the slowly budding romance is earned in Jane Eyre, here it just is. Instantly, just because. After what we’re told is a couple of weeks but what feels more like hours, Andi is head over heels in love with Magnus.
The same goes for the jealousy bit. Where Jane Eyre honestly believes she has no shot at Rochester because he’s her employer, flirts relentlessly with the gorgeous neighbor, and is far above her station socially, in Within These Wicked Walls, there was never a sense of how Andi and Magnus relate to each other socially or culturally. Sure, he’s rich and she’s poor, but they always speak like equals and there was just no sense of a power imbalance because Magnus is super cursed which doesn’t exactly give him the high ground. He doesn’t really flirt with Kelela “the rival”, either, but because it’s part of Jane Eyre, Lauren Blackwood conjured up a ridiculous reason for Andi to withdraw emotionally. She has a complete freak-out when she finds out that Magnus and Kelela promised to get married to each other when they were children and even though Magnus tells her they’re not really engaged because a kids’ promise isn’t binding. But Andi doesn’t care. That’s the only conflict the author could conjure up and so we have to take it. Even after Magnus has confessed his love for Andi, she still refuses to be wit him because “she can’t be with a man who is promised to another”. My god, how stupid can a story get?
Speaking of god. There was a very annoying undercurrent of Christian preaching in this novel. Andi mentions how god loves her so much (never mind her two terrible childhoods or the fact that the Evil Eye exists), she gets disgusted by people cursing yet barely flinches at somebody dying in front of her, and it all had a distasteful (to me) dash of Catholicism to it.
Wow, I have ranted a lot already so let me sum up the rest really quickly. The second half of the novel is pure manufactured drama. A second storyline is introduced about Andi dealing with Jember, her parental figure. It’s all incredibly superficial and I’d imagine pretty offensive to people who have actually lived through emotional or physical abuse. The magic system is never explained, the setting is never explained, the curse is of course broken, even though none of it was very exciting (it’s literally just making amulets), and Magnus and Andi spend most of that part crying alternately or exclaiming their undying love for each other in super embarrassing language.
A few things that made me laugh:
- Manifestations show up at 10 PM exactly. Why? I don’t know, I guess these demons are just super punctual. As is the clock in Magnus’ manor.
- You can revive people to make them live as a zombie, but they come back as their younger self and also are made of clay for some reason?
- Andi calls someone she’s known for a day “her dearest friend”
- Everyone is fine with people dying because romance and heroice sacrifice I guess
The one redeeming thing I can say about this book is that it’s a super fast read. It’s dialogue-heavy (albeit mostly bad dialogue) and the beginning had a lot of potential. If only the author had actually had anything to say, or spent a few hours building a world, or takenthe time to do a proper Jane Eyre remix… Also, I have no idea what this has to do with Ethiopia other than that an exorcist is called debtera. Seriously, one quick Google search yields more information than this entire book.
MY RATING: 3/10 – Bad!