White Stag by Kara Barbieri
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
We are all monsters to something, somehow, someway.
As the sole survivor of a goblin raid on her village, Janneke is wracked with survivor’s guilt. This would have been bad enough, however, to make matters worse she is taken hostage by the raiding army and forced into a life of servitude at the hands of the sadistic goblin, Lydian.
Her life while with him is absolute hell. This is putting it mildly. We learn about this time through flashbacks but let’s just get the trigger warnings out of the way: sexual assault/rape, torture, body mutilation, and emotional abuse. If you are a reader who is sensitive to these topics, tread with caution. The descriptions of these happenings do pop up continually over the course of the story as they are a big part of Janneke’s character development.
After some time, Lydian grows tired of his plaything and for one reason or another gifts Janneke to his nephew, Soren. When the story begins for us, Janneke has been living with Soren for 100 years.
How can a human girl live that long? I have no idea. I never really understood the concept of time in this story. She is supposed to have been there for a hundred years but is still the same as when she first got there as far as outward appearance? She is still written as a teenage girl. It is strange. I think it has something to do with the location. The Permafrost. The magical land of the goblins.
Soon after the story begins, the current Erlking, leader of the goblins, dies and a new leader needs to be chosen to replace him on the throne. In their world, the way this is done is through a ‘stag hunt’. The magical White Stag is where the Erlking draws his power from, quite literally, during his reign.
Any goblin may become King by slaying the Stag. Hunting groups are assembled, alliances formed, and the hunt begins. Janneke, trained as a hunter since childhood, joins Soren on the hunt. They are both willing to do anything to ensure that Lydian doesn’t become Erlking. They are joined by a ragtag group of allies and the real adventure begins.
On the hunt, things are never boring, there is a lot of action and quite a few violent and intense scenes. New alliances are formed along the way and one of the best parts of the story for me was the various side characters. They added depth and humor to the story which was definitely needed at times. There really isn’t too much more I can say on the topic of the hunt without getting into spoilers, which I do not want to do.
Throughout their journey, Janneke and Soren’s relationship begins to change. The intensity of the hunt pushes them closer together and they begin to rely on each other like never before.
I really enjoyed their relationship. Soren is swoon-worthy for sure.
Soren, you might ask? Isn’t he a goblin? Yes, but keep in mind, these are not your standard goblins.
Oh no. These goblins are hot and are described more like Viking warriors. I found it helpful to picture this when thinking of Soren:
Not what you think of when you think of goblin? Yeah. Truth be told, it was a little jarring at first but I think, again, it has something to do with the magic of the Permafrost. At one point, Barbieri mentions something about their looks being an illusion. Then in another section, during a fight, you read of their illusion dropping a little and their true, more animalistic, form showing through.
Ultimately, I am not really sure how it all works as there was quite a bit of ambiguity with the magic system. Granted, maybe I just didn’t get it, but I do read a lot of fantasy and felt this could have been ironed out a bit more. Perhaps we will get more clarification of the world in the second book.
The conclusion is an absolute cliffhanger and I look forward to seeing how Barbieri continues this story. Janneke and Soren both had so much growth here and I am most interested to see if they continue to grow together in the future or if changing circumstances push them apart.
Overall, I enjoyed diving into the hunt and learning about Janneke and the goblin world. Was this book perfect? No, not at all. There were definitely some places that I felt could have been fine-tuned; some repetitive phrasing and unclear magical elements, etc. That being said, it is impressive that such a young author is getting this out there as a debut novel. The world is vast and complex and I think that Barbieri should definitely be proud. It draws you in and makes you want to learn more.
Thank you so much to the publisher, Wednesday Books, for providing me with a copy to read and review, as well as including me on the blog tour for its release. I truly appreciate the opportunity and look forward to continuing on with this story in the next book!
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