In this dark fantasy, Janneke is the last child in a family of daughters and has been groomed to be the ‘male heir’, having been taught to hunt, track, and fight. When her village was burned to the ground she was the only survivor and was taken captive by the malicious goblin Lydian, who scars her for life, and who then sends her to work for his nephew Soren.
She then has to serve this monster who she is bonded to in the Permafrost. A brutal hunt begins for the beautiful white stag as Lydian and Soren compete for the throne of the next Goblin King. Janneke's humanity comes at the cost of becoming more attached and loyal to the goblin Soren, and as she has to learn to survive in the world she has been made to live in, learning truths about the past and about who she really is.
This is the first novel from a talented new author, Kara Barbieri, who brought it to life on WattPad; she has imagined a world called the Permafrost, heavily influenced by Nordic mythology, laden with dangerous monsters alongside the goblins, living in an unforgiving frozen landscape. Set to be the start of a series, ‘White Stag’ is both frightening and captivating.
*Frightening because of the amount of sheer brutality in the novel: there are plenty of references to rape, torture, mutilation, and abuse, as well as all the combat/fighting leading to bloodshed and descriptions of injuries and more. Janneke has been victim to unspeakable acts at the hands of Lydian, and we gradually learn about his true capabilities as the story goes on, making him just about the vilest character you can possibly ever read about. Soren, who she is bound to, is the unlikely antidote to this goblin villain, and ironically becomes the one to bring romance and emotion to her world, despite the ‘humanity’ leaving her life.
*That's your trigger warning, folks!
What I found most appealing about the book, is the journey that Janneke goes on, both physically and emotionally, which kept me captivated throughout; the hunt and the battles are relentless and test her constantly, and the relationship with Soren gradually changes. I've read some criticism of the relationship between her and Soren (I made the mistake of reading others' reviews, which I don't normally do), and I disagree that it would be unlikely that she would become attached to him, given that she is his charge and bound to him. I wasn't sure whether to attribute her feelings towards Soren to a sort of Stockholm syndrome or because she genuinely developed feelings for him because he seemed to care for her (he became more human as she lost her humanity). The dichotomy here is fascinating. They've been attached for some hundred years or so, and the intensity would undoubtedly bring some connection; why now though is more the question, but it makes for great reading.
Barbieri has set the stage for a series in a world that may trigger many readers but evokes images, not unlike the Game of Thrones and is for anyone who loves Viking or Nordic-inspired tales and mythology. I appreciated her sense of humor throughout the novel, and I know there is so much more to come from this bright light that is Kara Barbieri.