Thanks to partners NetGalley, St. Martin's Press, and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Lauren Blackwood’s Within These Wicked Walls in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on October 19!
Those of you who follow me know that I love a new version of a classic, and I’m particularly a sucker for a Jane Eyre retelling, so when I saw that there was a Jane Eyre retelling set in Ethiopia with a fantasy twist, I requested immediately. Wow, did Lauren Blackwood’s Within These Wicked Walls satisfy my every hope and expectation!
This book does what the best retellings do: it takes its source material as inspiration and then spins out a new story and a new world. Here, the Jane character is Andromeda, a debtera—a type of exorcist—who can cleanse homes of the Evil Eye. In desperate straits after her mentor cast her out, Andromeda takes on a job at which ten other debteras have failed. She’s employed by the mysterious Magnus Rochester who lives in near-solitude at the far end of a desolate desert. All but a few servants and the nanny who raised him have abandoned him, apparently scared away by the curse no one can defeat.
We experience the story through Andromeda’s eyes, and what a fabulous protagonist she is. Like Jane, she’s been raised in unusual circumstances, and her values differ from those of her world. She calls herself plain but cares little about her appearance. Instead, she values her strength and skills in her profession and communicates with a blunt honesty that shocks Magnus. He, in turn, is lacking social graces after having grown up as an outsider from his family and from society, so for a while, their bluntness seems to put them at odds. And then, of course, things change.
I loved SO much about this story. Andromeda’s narrative voice is so much fun—I love her strength and her defiance of convention. Watching Magnus meet his match in Andromeda is so satisfying, and their chemistry is great. I also, however, appreciated the secondary characters: Saba, the silent and mysterious woman who takes joy in helping others; Jember, the debtera who raised Andromeda, whose complexity I found to be appealing; and even Kelela, the beautiful young woman who is Andromeda’s rival for Magnus’s affections.
Most of all, I reveled in Blackwood’s development of the magic behind the curse that Andromeda is fighting. The way it manifests throughout Magnus’s estate is haunting and imaginative and creepy: it preys on characters’ compassion for others and on their unique weaknesses, and watching Andromeda strategize the best way to fight each new Manifestation shows her intelligence, her perseverance, and her strength.
I was shocked to find out that Within These Wicked Walls is Blackwood’s debut, and it is certainly a confident, brilliant first novel. I can’t wait to see what she tackles next.
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.