Into the Dark LandsInto the Dark Lands by Michelle Sagara West is the beginning of a multi-book series starring Erin, a swordfighting healer, and Stefanos, the Beast to her Beauty. It is literally Light against Dark, Good against Evil, and somehow Erin is at the center of it all.
I understand completely the draw of the Bad Boy. And, to be fair, Erin doesn't go running into his arms drawn by his dark, brooding ways. Rather, it is an incredibly difficult decision she makes nearly against her will. Her parents have both sacrificed their lives for the fight against the dark forces. She is driven by revenge to take down the enemy. She trains daily, enduring bruises and beatings, all in order to step up and do her part in the war. It is only when she is faced with a horrific choice that she finally gives herself over to the evil side for what she believes will be a lifetime of pain and torture.
Of course, that's not what happens. The leader of the Evil side, Stefanos, is drawn to her beauty despite himself. His entire life has been about conquest and causing suffering. But due to this one intriguing woman, he begins to soften. He cancels the nightly torture sessions in his castle. No, I'm not joking. It really is this "campy". He begins to make small adjustments to his lifestyle for her. The other nasties around him get grumpy, of course, but he doesn't care. He has Erin to think about. He's obsessed with her.
And, over time, she slowly becomes obsessed with him.
To get into why I did not fall in love with the story, we'll need to get into a few spoilers.
First, this appears to be an early work by Sagara West - the back of the book says it was nominated for an award for "Best First Novel". There are numerous issues here that a talented editor should have fixed. The reader barely knows what people look like and how places should be envisioned. The author expects the reader to somehow know these things through osmosis. A confusing hierarchy of family lines and cultures is dumped without much concern for the reader deciphering them. Even far more confusing lineages such as in the Lord of the Rings make much more sense because of the author taking proper time to lay things out. Here it's more like a large box of Legos was upended and we're forced to fend for ourselves.
Point of views are switched without warning, so areas have to be re-read to make sense of them. Details are tossed in without explanation or meaning. The heroine is strong, dedicated, and talented in the first half of the book. Then she near-instantly disintegrates into a helpless, flopping fish during the entire second half.
So let's say all of that was simply due to the author being new to writing, and to the editor team not doing their job. How about the actual storyline?
Again we have a traditional "young woman becomes orphaned and has to adjust to a new culture" cliche which I literally have read in four of the last five novels I've picked up. We have the young man who stands steadfastly by her side, but who she ignores because he is too tame. We have the adults who don't understand her. We have her near-unbelievable attainment of top notch skills in a wealth of areas - healing, sword fighting, leading warriors in battle, and much more.
But all of that pales in comparison with what happens once she falls into Stefanos's grasp. She becomes a complete weakling. She becomes the epitome of the stereotype that women around the globe have been fighting for thousands of years.
She is sure he's not REALLY bad - he's just misunderstood and that through her patience and efforts he'll turn around. She quietly accepts his brutality. Sure, it bothers her he's over-the-top violent - but he doesn't MEAN to be violent. She knows there's hope if she just hangs in there. And yet part of her technique is to undermine his authority in front of his troops. No woman who had been to war leading troops for years would be unaware of the issues here!
I suppose at least you could say that he doesn't rape her repeatedly until she falls in love with him. That's a saving grace, considering a few other books I've read recently. But it's not that far off.
There are so many battered women's shelters overflowing with women who tried to "tame the bad boy". It simply doesn't happen. A person who enjoys hurting others doesn't somehow miraculously covert to a loving, caring person. For the book to set this situation up as an ideal hero-heroine pairing concerns me greatly. Sure, most readers might realize this is wildly improbable and read it as an outrageously campy version of a dream state. But what about the remaining readers who think this is realistic and possible? Who think that hurtful, pain-inflicting bad boy in their life might be "brought around" if they just endure the pain for a while longer?
Every nine seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten. Every nine seconds!! A man who loves inflicting pain shouldn't be idolized. He shouldn't be heroic. In this story we have a man who IS heroic and who stands by Erin's side no matter what. She ignores him because he is too quiet. Instead, she gets drawn into the pain-inflicting, child-beating bad guy and thinks she can somehow mitigate his actions.
I just don't find this to be a storyline I can get behind as being one I want to dream about.
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