Within These Wicked Walls, Lauren Blackwood’s debut YA fantasy novel, is marketed as an Ethiopian-inspired imagining of Jane Eyre. The description fits, but I’d argue that it doesn’t do the book justice—there are elements of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, yes, but Within These Wicked Walls is its own story, one that has magic and heartache as well as romance.
We follow Blackwood’s tale through the eyes of Andromeda, Andi for short. She’s a 19-year-old debtera, a person trained to create intricate amulets that break curses and ward off the Evil Eye, a malevolent magical force that gloms on to those who have particular sins or vices. At the beginning of the novel, Andi is on the streets just trying to survive—Jember, the man who had trained and raised her, had thrown her out.
She’s so desperate, in fact, that she takes on a job for Magnus Rochester, a young heir to a chocolate enterprise that bears a curse from the Evil Eye. That curse plagues him and his castle, and we start the novel with Andi walking through the grit and sand toward the building, which has a cold gothic ambiance, a stark contrast to the hellishly hot air of the desert that it resides in.
We spend most of our time in this castle—the curse’s impact on it creates a horror-infused atmosphere, making it a character in its own right. It’s always cold in the building despite the desert heat—so cold, in fact, that it sometimes snows inside. And the malevolent spirits inside make going out of their bedrooms after 10 p.m. a death sentence. The inhabitants—just a few servants along with Magnus and Andi—are at the mercy of the curse, and Andi starts doing what she can to cleanse each room from the Evil Eye’s influence.
The heart of the Evil Eye, however, rests in Magnus—he has inherited the curse from his father, and it transforms him into a hyena at night who will kill anyone he has made eye contact with during the day. The hyena and the castle are horrific creatures, and there are more than a few scenes where both act in violently gruesome ways that give the story its gothic, sometimes grotesque feel.
If the gothic imagery or the magic don’t pull you in, there’s a good chance Andromeda will. As her story unfolds, we find out about her past—her childhood years with Jember, who kept her alive but at arm’s length and acted in ways that were clearly abusive. You also learn how she got that scar that runs down her face, something she’s uncomfortable about, appearance-wise, in the beginning of the book.
Andi’s grit and ability to love when the world was so unloving to her make her a character you want to root for. And you’re right there with her as she faces the terrors of the castle and the complicated relationships she has within and without those walls.
It’s not much of a spoiler, especially if you’re familiar with Jane Eyre, that Magnus and Andromeda fall in love and end up together. I couldn’t help thinking, however, that Andi could do better. Yes, Magnus is a chocolate magnate and all, but it was hard for me to understand what Andromeda saw in him, as he seemed to spend much of his time whining and waiting for others to save him. The story also touches on how his expectations of what their relationship will be in the future differ from what Andi would like. And there’s no real resolution of that. If there was a sequel, I’d be perfectly happy if the two were no longer together—there’s a whole world out there for Andi, and she doesn’t need a man, and certainly not a man like Magnus, to see it.
Despite my cool feelings for Magnus, the steps toward their ultimate romance are well-played with the appropriate will-they, won’t-they back-and-forth. Within These Wicked Walls, however, is more than just the romance between Andi and Magnus. The story also touches on familial love, of how chosen family can still be complicated and have their own unhealthy dynamic. Love isn’t necessarily black-and-white, and it’s hard to know when the shades of grey become too dark. Blackwood weaves these themes throughout the story with riveting prose to create a world that many readers will be transported into.
Vanessa Armstrong is a writer with bylines at The LA Times, SYFY WIRE, StarTrek.com and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Penny and her husband Jon, and she loves books more than most things. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.