YA Weekend: White Stag by Kara Barbieri
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 1 of Permafrost
Publisher: Wednesday Books (January 8, 2019)
Length: 368 pages
So I have some really mixed feelings about White Stag, and honestly, even having gone in knowing about some of its potential issues did not make putting together this review any easier. My problem is that I did not find this to be a bad book, just an aggressively mediocre one in that I’m having a hard time coming up with anything about it that excited me. And what’s more the pity, I recognized some clear attempts to make this one stand out, but in the end the story still felt bland and generic.
At the center of this tale is seventeen-year-old Janneke, the youngest of a family with only daughters, hence she was raised by her father to be his heir. In the wilderness, she learned how to hunt and track and other survival skills. But one day, her village is razed to the ground and everyone is massacred by the depraved goblins of the Permafrost court. As the sole survivor, Janneke is taken and tortured by the wicked Lydian, suffering the worst kinds of abuse at his hands before she was handed off to his nephew, Soren.
When the book opens, Janneke has already spent a century as a goblin thrall. Soren, however, has been a much kinder master than his uncle, and over time the two have settled into a comfortable, if not convivial, relationship. But then the death of the Goblin King throws everything into uncertainty, setting off the Hunt for the great white stag which would determine the next ruler of Permafrost, a position that both Soren and Lydian would be vying for. Still suffering from the memories and scars of the violence she has endured, Janneke finds herself caught between two worlds, her loyalties to Soren tested as the goblin and human aspects of her spirit clash within her.
On the surface, there appears to be quite a lot going on in White Stag, but dig a little deeper and it is revealed that most of this is of the window dressing variety—nothing really necessary or essential to the plot, which, in a nutshell, comes down to the stag hunt. The main story is simple, really: the first goblin to kill the stag gets to be the new king, but since the villain wants to fix the contest so that he can be the ruler forever, Janneke and Soren must do everything to stop him from carrying out his evil plans. Ironically, had the author kept things as simple and straightforward, I might have enjoyed the book more; as it is, though, all the superfluous bells and whistles and other melodramatic fluff actually made this one feel uninspired and less interesting.
Take the goblins, for one. On the one hand, I appreciate the attempt to build a story around these unconventional fantasy creatures, though on the other, I am disappointed by the wholly conventional and surface-level way it was carried out. The whole thing reminds me of a running joke I have with a gamer friend of mine regarding elves, a staple race of many of the MMORPGs we play. My friend despises playing elves because he thinks they have become a worn out, tired old trope that either needs to be completely revamped or straight-up retired. Unfortunately though, they have a tendency to pop up time and time again, even in new games where “original” playable races of pointy-eared, magically adept, forest-loving immortals are obviously just reskinned and re-designed versions of the classic elf. Whenever this happens, my friend always goes, “Nope, I’m not fooled.” And in the case of White Stag, I’m not fooled either. This novel had a chance to do all kinds of cool and different things with goblins, but really, for all intents and purposes, they are the Fae, complete with all their courtly machinations, glamor, and every other kind of faerie trope.
Then, there’s Janneke and Soren’s relationship. Again, I liked the attempt at an unconventional romance, one between two people who have been companions for a long time but are only now starting to explore the possibility of becoming more to each other. However, none of Janneke or Soren’s interactions really came across this way. Their “romantic profile” did not a resemble that of a couple who have known each other for close to a century, and whatever chemistry they had was ruined for me by that nagging feeling of incongruency.
There are other issues here, namely plot points and world-building elements that are interesting at first glance but slowly start to lose their appeal as you read on and find out they are either superficial cosmetic details or underdeveloped. Thing is, Kara Barbieri clearly has the writing chops and fantastic ideas, but just doesn’t seem to have mastered bringing them all together in an orderly and cogent way. As a result, White Stag feels like the book version of a stock piece of music or artwork, full of surface beauty but no real substance or depth. With time and experience, I think Barbieri can become an accomplished author because I see so much of her potential in this book, which was a decent read that could have been a great had it not been held back by its generic nature and uncertainty of itself.