Content warning: body horror; gore; memories of child abuse; bullying
Don’t you just hate when the premise you’ve heard for a story doesn’t quite live up to the story that’s told? Well, I’m happy to report that this is solidly NOT the case for Lauren Blackwood’s debut novel, Within These Wicked Walls—a horror novel targeted towards the older end of the young adult audience. Billed as an Ethiopian-inspired fantasy retelling of Jane Eyre, this book lives up to the high bar set by its description.
Andromeda is a magic practitioner—a debtera, to be exact—who has trained extensively in crafting amulets of protection for various usage, including against powerful curses such as the one at the secluded Rochester mansion. Not quite a retelling, this mansion is located outside of an Ethiopian-inspired village rather than an English hamlet. Magnus Rochester is a twenty-two year old man of mixed heritage who not only inherited his English father’s exorbitant wealth, but his most relentless and deadly curse as well—the Evil Eye. Since the curse affects any household that he builds, Magnus has settled into a life limited to socializing with those who serve his home, his lawyer, and the lawyer’s sister. So when Andromeda enters his life, Magnus has all the bad habits of a rich guy who has only interacted with people paid to serve him in one manner or another. Andromeda pushes Magnus to examine this dynamic and how he manages the personnel issues among the staff, some of whom would like to see her status within the mansion taken down a peg. The real problem? Mansion staff has increasingly–and mysteriously—diminished so that by the time Andromeda takes on her role of ridding the mansion of its curse, there are only four members of staff left.
As the story progresses and Andromeda learns more about the nature of the Rochester curse, she realizes that the myth behind the curse is a lot more sinister than it seems. She also finds that she is not completely equipped to face it alone and later has to seek assistance from the person who left her to such a dire situation, her adoptive father—who has Yondu from Guardians of the Galaxy, yet stoic, vibes. Her dedication to ridding the Rochester household from its curse is amplified when she and Magnus begin pining for each other, as their attraction suffers from more obstacles than you can find at a track competition: 1) the whole employer/employee thing 2) the whole poor/rich thing 3) the whole your-family-line-is-cursed-forevermore thing 4) no one in either of their lives wants them to be together. However, nothing is a greater barrier than Magnus’ lack of boundaries which veer on the edge of spoiled aloofness to discomfiting, especially, when we learn just how affected he is by the curse. The way that the creeping horror of the house escalates as the story reaches its first pivotal point—and we begin to unravel the secrets—is admirable and truly made me reconsider my stance on reading horror books (I may or may not have a fear of them invading my nightmares).
If you have a stomach for light horror and gore, similar to what you may find in Nightmare Before Christmas or Cabin in the Woods and share a love for angst and mutual pining, then Within These Wicked Walls is definitely for you. It served me the perfect dose of mystery, romance, magical mayhem, and consistency in pacing and storytelling.