White Stag (Permafrost #1) by Kara Barbieri

There are a few things that would have turned this book from passably entertaining YA fantasy to a really terrific read, and I’m hoping that the fact that there are only a few things bodes well for the future career of Kara Barbieri. First and foremost is the lack of rigor, whether it be in the editing process or in the world-building itself. I’m not the kind of nitpicker who’s all “Well in Book 3 of the so far 7-book series, it was clearly stated that the minor village of Bludhaven burned down in 1831 and not 1832” (because also I have a terrible head for dates) but there’s a lot of disbelief I’m willing to suspend, especially in fantasy novels. What I could not get over in this book was the idea that our heroine, Janneke (or Janneka to her friends,) had been Soren’s companion for a hundred years but that they were only now having this thawing in their relationship. Hell, I couldn’t believe she’d been in the Permafrost for that long yet knew so little about goblins, when she’s supposed to be smart and resourceful and all that, and had been given plenty of opportunity, often explicitly so as with her role as cupbearer/spy when visiting rival courts, to learn about the beings she lived with.

Which also leads to the whole concept of goblins only being able to destroy and thus needing humans to create and how this makes no sense whatsoever in the way it’s selectively applied. Like, Soren’s hand is damaged by the Permafrost because he dares to braid Janneke’s hair at one point, to ready for The Hunt, but his lips don’t fall off after he kisses her out of love? Not that I wanted them to, but it bothered me that the “hard and fast” rules governing goblinkind were so arbitrarily applied. Which is a shame because the world building otherwise is quite fascinating, as Ms Barbieri draws from a wealth of obscure Norse mythology to tell her tale. I do think a more rigorous editor would have been able to demand more from her, as the richness of the tale sometimes turns patchy, particularly when it comes to describing locations — oftentimes, I feel like Janneke must have some sort of myopia as nothing more than 5 feet away from her ever seems to be described. There were also a lot of assumptions in the way that events were described as givens after the fact despite their being supposedly contemporaneous with and important to the narrative. It’s like Ms Barbieri just assumed we knew stuff she had in her head, which is a common rookie mistake that a good editor should have been able to help remedy.

I also found the whole “I know he’s a serial killer but he’s my serial killer and aren’t we all really serial killers at heart” romance trope wearisome. Fortunately, this was balanced with some excellent self-examination, with the message that sometimes it’s healthier to let go of the past and embrace your future. I wasn’t as much of a fan of the natural selection theme, however, finding it painfully ironic that a character who spent so much time rightfully and knowingly fighting for survival as a human among goblins should assume that others welcome or deserve death due to inherent weakness. Also, and this is going to sound weird, was Janneke’s rape ever actually named such? I felt it was referred to euphemistically too often, and I’m not sure why. Whose sensibilities are we protecting here?

I will probably read Book 2 because the ending and epilogue were actually pretty cool, and I’m willing to overlook debut novel mistakes as a fledgling writer makes her way into the world. There’s a lot of promise here, and I’m hoping that, as with Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel Of The Sands series, it just keeps getting better.

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