Title: White Stag
Author: Kara Barbieri
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Release Date: January 8, 2019
Page Count: 368 pages
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The first book in a brutally stunning series where a young girl finds herself becoming more monster than human and must uncover dangerous truths about who she is and the place that has become her home.
As the last child in a family of daughters, seventeen-year-old Janneke was raised to be the male heir. While her sisters were becoming wives and mothers, she was taught to hunt, track, and fight. On the day her village was burned to the ground, Janneke—as the only survivor—was taken captive by the malicious Lydian and eventually sent to work for his nephew Soren.
Janneke’s survival in the court of merciless monsters has come at the cost of her connection to the human world. And when the Goblin King’s death ignites an ancient hunt for the next king, Soren senses an opportunity for her to finally fully accept the ways of the brutal Permafrost. But every action he takes to bring her deeper into his world only shows him that a little humanity isn’t bad—especially when it comes to those you care about.
Through every battle they survive, Janneke’s loyalty to Soren deepens. After dangerous truths are revealed, Janneke must choose between holding on or letting go of her last connections to a world she no longer belongs to. She must make the right choice to save the only thing keeping both worlds from crumbling.
Trigger warnings: White Stag contains some content that may be uncomfortable for some readers, including mention/discussion of rape and self harm, violence, death, and animal harm.
“Here, as the only mortal in a hall of monsters, I was very glad that I was not most humans.”
This dark and richly lush novel surprised me. I was expecting a book with a main character that still lived in the past and struggled with the circumstances of her present life. That was somewhat the case, but for the most part, I was way off, and that’s a good thing because the main character is so much better than what I was expecting.
White Stag demonstrates that it’s okay to present a fantasy world that’s crawling with foreseen and unforeseen dangers. It’s okay to have a main character that has been through many hardships and lives a life she never would have expected for herself. And it’s wildly okay to write a book with a dark atmosphere.
“The heartbeat of the Permafrost was like thunder underneath my feet, and the prey lines were clear as the morning sun.”
I haven’t read a dark fantasy in a long time. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy with this many dark elements. It’s a good thing, since most YA fantasy books have dark elements, but none as dark as the ones in White Stag. The world Janneke lives in is harsh and dangerous and cruel, a world humans would run from if some, like Janneke, were not forced into staying. Goblins rule the Permafrost and humans are merely considered servants to most. They fight, they kill one another without a simple care for who they are. It’s as if everything is a game to them, and everyone is merely a pawn in the Permafrost.
The idea of hunting the white stag was unique. I enjoyed how having the power of the white stag proved who was the next Goblin King. But the hunt itself is deadly to many and one hundred percent unkind to all. Janneke doesn’t know what really to expect in the hunt, except that many goblins will perish and one will come out the victor. But she was never expecting to find herself in the hunt and come out being the person she was meant to become.
I loved the dynamic between Janneke and Soren. Janneke is slow to trust Soren, as Soren is considered her “master.” But unlike the other goblins, unlike Lydian, Soren doesn’t want Janneke to be a servant, to treat him like a master. He wants Janneke to see him as a friend, or potentially something more. But like most relationships, theirs starts out rough. Janneke originally belonged to Lydian before she landed in Soren’s possession, so Janneke believes that all goblins are monsters. But over the years, Janneke realizes Soren is nothing like the other Goblins, and that Soren wants her as a confidant and someone to trust. And, slowly, that’s how their relationship begins to change.
“The future is frightening, I know. The choice is the hardest of all. But it is a choice — who rules and who lives and who dies, who hunts and who mends and who heals. It is your power to choose.”
Janneke’s inner demons and her disturbing past are constant factors in the story. Lydian stole her from the human world after killing everything she held dear and from there, he only made her life worse. Lydian did what he could to rip her apart and break her spirit. And even though she lived after her captivity, she has scars branded on her body and nightmares that haunt her day and night. She faces her demons daily and, though she is a strong soul, she can’t escape everything. And then there’s her fear of becoming something she never wanted to become: a monster. But she soon realizes that monsters come in many forms.
Overall, I enjoyed this darkly atmospheric book and I look forward to reading the sequel.
White Stag releases January 8, 2019!
Thank you to the publishing company for sending an advanced e-copy for me to read and write an honest review! All quotes are from the advanced e-copy and may not appear in the final print copy.