Andromeda is a debtera—an exorcist hired to cleanse households of the Evil Eye. When a handsome young heir named Magnus Rochester reaches out to hire her, Andromeda quickly realizes this is a job like no other, with horrifying manifestations at every turn, and that Magnus is hiding far more than she has been trained for. Death is the most likely outcome if she stays, but leaving Magnus to live out his curse alone isn’t an option. Evil may roam the castle’s halls, but so does a burning desire.
Within These Wicked Walls is a tough one to review, because it had a handful of things to recommend it, which were overshadowed by me really not liking the most significant element of the book at all: the central romance between Andromeda and Magnus.
To start with the good, while this is more of a Jane Eyre inspired story than a proper retelling (more on that in a second), it does keep up the gothic atmosphere of the original while adding some new elements. The creepy house, the suspicious servants and general sense of foreboding are all well done, and I liked the integration of the magic system, which revolves around the carving of metal amulets to ward against evil spirits. There’s also a few nods to the Ethiopian setting, around the time of Italian occupation, such as the harshness of the desert landscape. I would have liked a little more detail, since the setting often felt a little unmoored and lacking in specificity, but it was nice to read a gothic story not set in dreary old England for a change.
There’s also an interesting side-plot about the relationship between Andromeda and her adoptive father Jember, though it comes somewhat out of left-field in the second half of the book and doesn’t mesh neatly with some of the other elements of the story.
All that aside however, unfortunately I did not click with the romance in this book at all, which is clearly intended to be the story’s crowning jewel. Part of this is the way the Within These Wicked Walls functions as not-really a retelling of Jane Eyre (a book I didn’t even necessarily love myself). A big part of what’s compelling about Jane Eyre is that we understand what a terrible idea the romance between Jane and Mr Rochester is, but are captivated by their relationship in all its messiness anyway. There’s also a strong critique of class, exemplified by their differing social statuses.
Here, Andromeda and Marcus fall in love pretty much straight away and are prepared to throw their lives away for each other after knowing each other for mere days. At no point did I feel they had real chemistry or any reason to be together except that it’s a hallmark of gothic novels for the heroine to fall in love with the monster. It doesn’t help that Marcus is, frankly, kind of an asshole, as well as holding all the power over Andromeda as her employer – a fact conveniently forgotten by Andromeda as soon as she realises she’s in love with him, and by the narrative at large.
I didn’t necessarily expect a stroke for stroke retelling, but I think this book would be more engaging if it had used the different setting as an opportunity to build on and critique the original story rather than simply telling a rather bland romance. I’m disappointed I can’t really recommend this one, though I’m still glad to see it as part of the growing pile of non-western retellings we’re getting these days.
Note: I received an ARC from Wednesday books. Within These Wicked Walls will be released on 19 October.