Cover art for “These Wicked Walls” owned by Wednesday Books

A cold, haunted mansion in the middle of the hot desert. A blend of gothic fiction, soulful romance and religious devotions, wrapped in one unique young adult fantasy novel.

“Within These Wicked Walls” by Lauren Blackwood presents a refreshing approach to the classic young adult format. While it retains traditional elements of the genre, like a resilient heroine and a supportive love interest, it also introduces compelling conversations about what it means to be affectionate through the lens of religion, fatherhood and friendship. 

The story is loosely based on Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and follows the main heroine, Andromeda, as she begins her employment at the eccentric Magnus Rochester’s mansion. However, in this fictional world, a mysterious force called the “evil eye” haunts the mansion, manifesting itself in different forms and terrorizing its inhabitants. Andromeda’s job as a “debtera” (exorcist) is to cleanse the house of these manifestations and free Magnus from his curse, a process during which she conceivably falls in love with him. Thus, Blackwood paints an eerie backdrop for the romance between these two characters. 

The recurring theme of the “evil eye” poses powerful questions about religion. The evil eye is a common concept in many cultures and religions; persisting throughout generations, it is often viewed as a severe sin and taboo. Andromeda describes it as “the first Manifestation of sin — namely jealousy and greed. In a constant state of longing, it latches onto any human who desires the same thing it does.”

It embodies the idea of how emotions like greed and envy are dark forces of evil that bring destruction to its victims. Blackwood presents the evil eye as a tangible object that wreaks havoc. Only the debteras, those trained by the church, can destroy it. 

By this logic, the church is a benevolent and fearsome source of good, providing comfort and protection to its followers. However, Blackwood shows us that blind faith is not always possible. Andromeda describes her upbringing as a debtera of the church in the first few pages of the book: “We debtera led the worship services with hymns and chants, as well as performed all the duties of a priest … We were healers. Artisans.” Clearly, Andromeda views the role as a debtera as one of honor and spiritual prestige. 

However, only a couple of chapters later, she again describes her upbringing: “A merciless upbringing had left me literally scarred, whereas no curse could lay a finger on me.” The relationship between Andromeda and Jember, her adoptive father and an esteemed debtera, displays the challenges to religious devotion and how society interferes. Andromeda is introduced to religion through Jember, who was emotionally withholding, cold and cruel.

How can her upbringing with the church, under the guidance of a senior debtera, be both rewarding and merciless? How can both good and evil preside in this space? As the story continues, Andromeda wades through these contradictions and redefines herself in the process.

Simultaneously, Blackwood attempts to take the reader on a journey through how Jember redeems himself as a father, how Andromeda gains a new appreciation for religion and, subsequently, affection and devotion. The notion is intriguing and well worth it. However, Blackwood could have delved deeper into the emotions surrounding a tumultuous father-daughter relationship and the role religion plays in it, rather than solely focusing on romantic development. It’s difficult to grapple with how easily Andromeda is able to forgive Jember after his abuse of her as a child. Furthermore, it’s difficult to understand how she is able to retain a positive association with religion in the end. 

Although the romance between Andromeda and Magnus is the driving element of the story, the symbolism of the “evil eye,” religion and the supportive relationships between Andromeda and her adoptive father cause the story to stand out even more from other YA novels. The romance between the two main characters is indeed heartwarming and soulful. Both characters develop throughout the story, introducing each other to a different way of viewing the world. Through their development, we watch a sweet and endearing relationship unfold. But it is not the sole cause for development for the heroine, as seen commonly in many romance books. Rather, her relationships with her father, religion, the evil eye and friendship foster her character development.

“Within these Wicked Walls” is a commentary on religion and wicked forces. It is an ode to the father-daughter bond. It adds layers to the characters that lie beyond romance, a relevant and necessary reminder for us all. 

Daily Arts Writer Zoha Khan can be reached at zohak@umich.edu.