White Stagby Kara Barbieri
Series: Permafrost #1
Published on January 8, 2019 by Wednesday Books
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
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.
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For all its promises of a dark fantasy, White Stag completely missed the mark for me. The world itself couldn’t make up for the lack of interesting characters and a story that fell on its face.
From the start, you’re expected to simply accept the magic system, the world, the beautiful goblins and this land, this Permafrost, that sits apart from the land of humans. I read a lot of fantasy. Accepting certain things about the world comes with the genre. But then this idea that humans can change into goblins comes into play. . . and it’s never really explained. Furthermore, it becomes a MAJOR plot point throughout and I couldn’t get behind it because I didn’t understand it. I wasn’t grounded in the world, the magic system, enough to accept that it just happened. Nothing just happens.
The protagonist, Janneke, felt like all sorts of special snowflake. From the beginning, I felt she was very one-note as a character. Her entire backstory revolves around a single moment and while I get the traumatic nature of it, Barbieri brings it up again and again until I wondered if Janneke is defined by anything else. I don’t make light of what she went through but in terms of character development I wanted her character to be more. She was the best human hunter from her village, and so she hunts and questions her humanity and I never felt a need to root for her. Nothing drove her through the story, at least not until later on but it was too late by then.
So back to the hunting bit. She’s good enough to compete with goblins who are supposed to be these super badass fighters, big deal monsters here. And perhaps that would have been reinforced if Janneke’s love interest, a goblin, wasn’t so different from the other goblins. Soren starts the novel not getting sarcasm but suddenly does by halfway through. He’s kind to Janneke and treats her differently than his other “thralls” (human slaves/servants taken from their home), which is strange for a goblin, very human (so why did he need to be a goblin?). You can tell they’re being set up for a romance subplot early on and I never felt the chemistry, so when it finally came up I was more annoyed than anything. Especially when Janneke goes on about how she’s not beautiful and Soren contradicts her.
The story itself centers around The Hunt and the drive to find the next Erlking (Goblin King) of the Permafrost. I thought it would take on a darker edge based on the synopsis but soon turned into an adventure story with Janneke, Soren, and their group traveling about completing “quests” of sorts. It’s not a bad thing but I was already losing interest so another run-of-the-mill fantasy didn’t help.
Plus, every situation they’re in the group gets out of, with each saving grace more outrageous than the next. Tension GONE. If they’re always going to get out with assistance then why should I worry they’ll suffer? Yes, I like characters to suffer so they can overcome and it didn’t feel like Janneke and her group were ever truly in danger because she was chosen. Snowflake AND chosen one. Quite the combo.
At one point, it comes up that Janneke was known to her father as “Janneka,” the feminine form of the name. It’s made clear that she was raised and treated as a boy in her village while her sisters led a normal life, so I was surprised when that entire concept wasn’t taken further. I would have loved that, to be honest, because instead Janneke questions her humanity and where she fits but it’s never really a question.
The one thing I did love about this book was the world itself. I have a thing for creepy paranormal fantasy worlds, and I love the idea of the Goblin King (always will thanks to Labyrinth). And I was SO excited when I heard White Stag involved Norse mythology, but I realized soon on that the bulk of this involvement is Janneke saying “Odin’s ravens” as a curse.
Trust me when I say I wanted to love this book. Dark fantasy. Goblin King. Two of my must-read phrases. But it wasn’t all that dark. And the goblins were nothing more than slightly more murderous faeries. I can’t say it was for me.