‘Within These Wicked Walls’ by Lauren Blackwood: Come for the horror and stay for the romance (or vice versa!)

Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood is a luxuriously dark fantasy that mixes horror and romance in such a way that it will leaving you gasping for more.

I don’t know if I’ve ever anticipated writing up my thoughts about a novel as much as when I sat down to write this Within These Wicked Walls book review.

Let me start off by saying that my tastes as of late have been drifting closer and closer to the horror aspect of dark fantasy, and this book gave me everything I wanted and a whole hell of a lot more.

First and foremost, let’s introduce you to the cast of characters: Set against a Victorian-era backdrop, we first meet Andromeda the debtera, which basically means she’s an exorcist. Life on the street has taught her valuable lessons, like how to fight demons, how to survive, and how love is a weakness she can’t afford to have. Most, if not all, of these lessons have come from her mentor and guardian Jember.

Magnus is the complete opposite of Andromeda. He’s a rich kid who can basically get anything he wants—and is used to being waited on hand and foot. But it’s not all sunshine and roses for him. His house is haunted by dozens of manifestations, and everyone who’s tried to get rid of them has either left in defeat or died.

As you can imagine, these two don’t exactly see eye to eye in the beginning. Magnus is insufferable, and Andromeda is stubborn. And that’s exactly why I love them so much.

As we’ve moved from the damsel in distress storylines for female characters, we charged full steam ahead into the territory of the “strong female character.” My problem with this characteristic is that some writers tend to create a female character with masculine traits and call it a day. Just change their name, and they could be a man. Oftentimes, these women are emotionless automatons that don’t feel, they just act (or react).

Andromeda is nothing like that. She’s a strong female character—without the air quotes—who’s lived a hard life on the streets and learned to close herself off to survive. It’s not just that she feels misunderstood or out of place—no, she’s seen real horrors. So, when she steps into Magnus’ home, she’s only looking to do a job so she can, hopefully, get a patronage.

But Andromeda is not without her feelings and a lot of conflicting thoughts in her head. She’s a capable human being who happens to be a very talented debtera, but she’s also a woman who wants to trust the idea of love. Growing up with Jember, who never showed her any affection, she thinks love will only hold her back.

She spends her entire life trying to emulate Jember, which makes sense considering he’s both a father-figure and one of the best debteras to ever live, but she soon realizes that what works for him simply does not work for her. I love that Andromeda is self-aware enough to realize this without someone like Magnus or Jember having to tell her. She has no problem speaking her mind and fighting for what she believes in, even when she’s fighting against someone much older and more experienced.

In fact, this is one of the qualities that Magnus finds so endearing about her. As a spoiled rich kid, he enjoys that Andromeda has an attitude and that she’s not afraid to put him in his place. He becomes enamored, and somehow that turns his insufferability into something charming.

Let me just take time out of this Within These Wicked Walls book review to say I loved Magnus from the get-go. Maybe it’s because I knew I was meant to. I understood what kind of person he was from the beginning; all I had to do was wait patiently for what came next. He’s the kind of eccentric that only comes from money and boredom, and yet there’s a wisdom there, too. He is at the center of the curse that haunts his house, in turn weighed down and defiant in the face of it.

And then Andromeda enters his life. He’s smitten with her early on, and you can clearly see that her presence gives him energy, even as he suffers tragedies. This plucky debtera inspires him, and he does everything in his power to both push her out of her comfort zone and make her feel secure.

The one part of this book I was not expecting was the romance. With its historical backdrop, you can expect a lot of pining. And trust me when I say, I couldn’t be happier. I love those moments where the tension between two characters is palpable, especially when it’s clear they want to touch each other but don’t, either due to social etiquette or fear of rejection.

Not to go too off the rails in this rated PG Within These Wicked Walls book review, but there is something decidedly not vanilla about Magnus and Andromeda’s relationship. This is more like subtext to the subtext, but somewhere between Magnus’ teasing and Andromeda’s defiance, you can tell their dynamic has the potential to be very interesting. If this sounds at all enjoyable to you, I’m begging you to please pick this book up.

But more than anything, I came here for the elements of horror, and they did not disappoint. As wonderful as the romance is at balancing out this story and making it a little easier to get through for those who don’t normally read dark fantasy, the manifestations take center stage in a myriad of ways.

The worldbuilding is fantastically intricate. As a debtera, Andromeda must carve out amulets to vanquish the evil spirits. The descriptions of this process alone are fascinating, and it’s not even the most exciting part about everything going on. Every variation of the Evil Eye is unique, and each manifestation presents itself differently. Some are relatively benign (if not downright annoying), while others have killed without prejudice and have no intention of stopping unless by force.

Imagine whipping winds and hundreds of spiders and bleeding walls and hands reaching out from the floors. As I was reading Within These Wicked Walls, I couldn’t help imagining how this would make a fantastic horror movie. Not only are the manifestations themselves cinematic, but with a strong Black lead and a diverse cast, plus the historical element and the swoon-worthy romance, you literally cannot go wrong here.

I’ve read a lot of incredible books this year, and I’ve loved all of them in different ways. I don’t like playing favorites, but I will if it means you’ll give this book a chance: Within These Wicked Walls is the best book I’ve read this year, and I need everyone to pick it up.

‘Within These Wicked Walls’ hit store shelves on October 19, 2021

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