Title: White Stag
Author: Kara Barbieri
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 368
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Notable Notables: MC with body dysphoria
Recommended Readers: No one, sadly
Thank you, NetGalley and the publisher, for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
I’m going to be honest with you: I DNF’d White Stag by Kara Barbieri at 56%. I normally don’t review books I don’t finish because it’s unfair, but I’ve made an exception for this book because it needs major editorial help, and I think interested readers should be aware of that before they buy.
First, the plot: A human girl named Janneke has been a slave in the Permafrost for one-hundred years. Her first goblin master was Lydian, who was endlessly cruel and malicious to her, eventually giving her as a gift to his nephew Soren. While Janneke’s current goblin master is much kinder than her last, she longs to escape to the human world, but without any family left to welcome her and her body undergoing monstrous changes from human to goblin, she is at war with herself about where she belongs. When the Goblin King dies and the White Stag that symbolizes his power flees from the throne, Janneke is forced to join the Hunt with Soren, who seeks to kill the stag, inherit its power, and become the new Goblin King.
If that plot sounds a little bare bones, that’s because it is. Even though this former Wattpad sensation has been expanded and revised for an official release, I’m afraid both the writer and the editor forgot something crucial: world building. As a result, the story is extremely confusing and at times downright nonsensical.
For instance, we learn that the Permafrost is a harsh and barren place, but there is no indication of where it exists in regards to the mortal realm. Is it considered a different, physical land? Is it a metaphysical plane that humans can accidental find themselves in, like most faerie realms are? What is the boundary that Janneke constantly references? Is it a physical boundary? A magical one? Or just a culturally-understood country border? Is it visible to the eye or invisible? And why does Janneke constantly reference Norse mythology in her swears (“Hel,” “Odin’s ravens”) without any other religious context? Is she Norse, or do the Norse gods/mythology have a real relation to this world and these characters?
We also don’t know why all the goblins are inhumanly beautiful. We don’t know how or why they absorb power from the things they kill to grow stronger. And we definitely don’t know how they have higher societies with estates, titles, and rulers if goblins can only destroy, requiring human slaves to do any work that involves creation, such as clothes making. (And yet goblins can create superior weapons and armor?)
Then there’s Janneke herself. I love fanfiction, but so much of Janneke is one fanfiction flaw after another. In addition to giving her body dysphoria, Barbieri has loaded up her main character with as many traumas as she can for no other reason than that’s the only way she can make Janneke interesting. We’re talking PTSD from torture, rape, body mutilation, a borderline eating disorder, and night terrors.
I’m not against giving a character traumas to deal with, but here they are only for shock value with no actual exploration of them, no journey with them. Janneke just carries them, and the reader has to endure one bad italicized flashback after another to learn when they happened, and that’s it. I could’ve really enjoyed wrestling with Janneke’s body dysphoria with her, if it hadn’t just disappeared whenever Soren puts his lovey-dovey, goo-goo eyes on Janneke, revealing it to be the fake obstacle of their love that it really is.
And then there’s the gross hyperbole that accompanies these traumas. Janneke experiences these tortures at Lydian’s hands when she is first brought to the Permafrost, and the text implies that she’s been with Soren for the majority of her time. Yet, she wakes up every night screaming because her nightmares are that vivid and horrifying. And she’s done this close to a hundred years. I’m calling BS on this one. Any person undergoing this would have one of two things happen by this point: 1) your mind would just break from the strain at last, or 2) you’d go numb. The mind can’t just stay in endless panic mode forever. Eventually, something has to give.
Also, I think Janneke might be a POC? Maybe? That, or a tan white girl. The fact that I have to question this should tell you something about how clear the author was being on the subject.
The rest of Janneke’s backstory is pretty contrived, used only to garner sympathy from the reader, but that tactic failed with me. For instance, we’re told when she was taken by the goblins that her village was burned down and her mother, father, and six sisters were killed. And I guess that’s supposed to matter, when we get to learn nothing about her family, not even their names. I’m not even sure why Barbieri even gave Janneke six sisters if they were all going to be referenced as a collective. Why not just one or two? We do learn a little of Janneke’s father, but only in how he contributed to her body dysphoria and her internal war with herself between choosing the human and goblin world. Other than that, he serves no purpose.
Let’s talk about Janneke’s World War Me situation. The whole reason Janneke is wrestling with this is because she’s apparently survived in the Permafrost so long that she is turning into a goblin. Suddenly, she’s absorbing the powers of the other goblins she kills, but we’re not sure how or why that works. We do learn that she was born on the boundary of the Permafrost (that boundary we still know nothing about), and that’s significant because she was born with a human mind but goblin blood. Because her mind and blood are warring with each other, she has to choose one over the other, or she will go mad.
I almost accepted this explanation, as flimsy as it is—until Janneke meets a literal halfling character who has a goblin parent and a human one, and somehow he was doing just fine. No weird mental wars or anything, and suddenly, the difference between the two is just so negligible that now I don’t understand what Janneke’s actual problem is.
These inconsistencies are all over the place. This is happening in a time of axes and swords, but both Janneke and the goblins speak with a strange mix of formality and bizarrely modern language. This book can’t decide what time it’s written in, making it impossible for the reader to determine as well. Janneke acts like there are many human slaves in the Permafrost, but then we only see one other than her for a brief moment. He says maybe two lines, makes Janneke feel guilty for being a traitor to her race, and then he’s gone. Then, she stumbles across two human hunters in the Permafrost (how did they cross the boundary???) and then acts shocked that they’re there.
I had hope that Lydian was going to be an interesting character. One of those problematic ones that are Terrible yet Fascinating, but he was only a barely-polished madman, seconds away from frothing at the mouth. Soren was equally boring and so obviously already in love and endlessly fascinated with Janneke that their too-easy romance put me to sleep. Sure, Janneke’s suffering from endless trauma from the goblins and the Permafrost, but she’ll go ahead and declare her love alongside Soren halfway into the book since he’s just so nice to her. Oh, he’s cruel and a killer, we’re assured, but we, the readers, conveniently never see evidence of this and Janneke just glosses over it. You couldn’t have made this more dull if you tried.
There are other goblin characters, but they serve such little purpose other than to make Janneke strong as an almost-goblin that I can’t even tell you their names.
To wrap this up, White Stag is a failed attempt at dark fantasy that wrongly equates trauma with actual darkness. It’s not so much “brutally stunning” as it is just brutal to slog through.
In truth, White Stag needed several more rounds of developmental editing before it was ready for publication. While the prose and writing style are generally fine and quite solid, the world building needs to actually be established instead of being info-dumped like I know what Janneke is even talking about (I swear, it gives you the sense that there was a book before this one, and I’m just missing that information, but there’s not. This is the first book. Makes me wonder if this actually was based on something else first before it became an original story.)
Janneke needs severe work as a character. If you’re going to load her up with trauma, then make it mean something. Don’t use it in place of actual characterization. Make Soren more mysterious, his feelings for Janneke murky and unclear. I want to actually be as confused as Janneke is about Soren’s behavior, instead of rolling my eyes at how stupidly dense she’s being when she’s supposedly pretty intelligent. (She’s survived this long in the Permafrost, after all. Give her the respect someone like that deserves.)
Establish better magic rules and reasoning behind goblin society and their powers. Make Janneke’s transformation actually make sense. And for God’s sake, actually make it the dark story that was promised instead of going, “Uh, the main character was raped in the past and one of her boobs was ripped off, does that count as dark?”