TW: Rape, Violence, Abuse
I had to sit on this review for quite a while, because my feelings about this book were all over the place when I finished it. I absolutely adore modern fairy tales. Anything that even hints at a world beyond the veil of our own, instantly goes onto my reading list. I don't shy away from books that are dark and gritty, and I actually often praise stories that aren't full of insta-love and wilting women. So, by all rights, this book should have been an instant five star read for me. It wasn't though, and that took me a while to unpack.
First off, praise where praise is due. Barbieri does a stellar job of dropping the reader right into the fray from page one, and doling out just enough information to really keep things intriguing. From the moment I met Janneke, and realized her plight, I was completely sold on this story line. The idea of a human servant in a world of goblins, a character who is slowly losing her humanness with every decision she makes to survive, was just fascinating. I found myself rooting for Janneke and her inner fire. Here was a character who, despite all the odds stacked against her, was surviving. I wanted to see her burn everything around her, and walk valiantly through the flames.
When I finally got an opportunity to really know Soren, my heart was pretty much given to this book. I loved how he was so at odds with those around him. Any character who is equal parts compassionate and brutal pretty much instantly has my heart. I like to believe that we're all a little bit in the gray area, and Soren definitely fits that bill. As he and Janneke bantered and fought together, I couldn't help but smile that their relationship. There's no insta-love here at all. This is a relationship built on a foundation of trust, and it shows. You would think that these two paragraphs were more than enough to explain why this would be a five star read for me, but here comes the difficult part of this review.
First off, this book relies heavily on flashbacks to Janneke's repeated rape and torture at the hands of our villain, Lydian. I completely understand that the goal was to elicit sympathy for Janneke, and explain the quirks her character displays. However I also believe, strongly, that this could have been achieved by giving a one time rundown of her backstory, and moving on. The repeated flashbacks get really uncomfortable after a while. As I mentioned above, I am not squeamish in the least. I think that gritty and dark Fantasy books are the best. In this case though, I felt like it was really overdone. In fact, it started to chip away at the fierce woman who I originally fell in love with. I think the idea was a fair one, to create a back story to show Janneke rise from the ashes. Instead it almost made her seem broken to the point that Soren was her savior, and I wasn't a fan.
My other big issue with this story lies with Lydian. There's no denying that he's an absolutely loathsome character. If anything, Barbieri should be given credit for creating a character who has not a single redeemable trait. That's fairly impressive. However there is never any explanation for Lydian's madness. There is a prophecy hinted at, and talk of visions, but Lydian never really gets the backstory that he really deserves. Instead he's just a character built of madness and hatred, a completely dark individual. It almost made him feel less scary to me, simply because he didn't feel like a real person. Like I said before, the grayness of the world is what makes it fascinating. Think of the scariest villain you know of, and they probably have at least a shred of humanity in them. Lydian definitely does not.
Well, so there you have it. I apologize that this review is so long but there's even more I could discuss about this book. It really sat on that line for me, where I wanted to love it more but had to be honest about how I felt overall. Perhaps the next book, which I will very much be ready to read, will bring back the Janneke that I loved. Perhaps the next book will have a little more polish, and a little more fairy tale feel to it. If so, that will be a five star read. I can't wait.