*I received an ARC from the publisher for this book in exchange for an honest review.
I’m a sucker for good historical alternative fantasy, especially dark fantasy, and I adore a story that I can’t predict. Erika Johansen’s Beneath the Keep is brutally satisfying, and left me wanting to read the rest of the series as soon as possible.
Beneath the Keep is a standalone prequel to her Tearling series, establishing the fall of a society from the originally intended utopia to the worst sorts of violent despotism and poverty. The story follows multiple characters’ plotlines, which Johansen weaves together over the course of the story: Lazarus, the murderer with his own morality; Aislinn, the unlikely teenage leader of a starving population’s rebellion; Niya, the loyal maid to the beloved princess; and the Princess Elyssa, a young woman determined to rule with a kinder, gentler hand than her ruthless mother, the Queen. Each storyline travels mostly in parallel as the reader follows their journeys to the Keep.
Johansen’s depictions of human trafficking, drug use, torture, and fanaticism are not for the faint-hearted reader. The horrors of her deep underworld to the city, the Creche, are occasionally hard to stomach: the book is a big trigger warning for many types of trauma. But I never got the feeling it was gratuitous, more that it was a brutally honest look under the blanket of civility that hides such things in real life. Thankfully, we are not privy to the worst events as they happen (Johansen leaves us out of the torture room or the actual post-trafficking scenes), although her depiction of the aftermath is graphic enough to give the reader a clear picture.
Overall I gave it four out of five stars, only because the five stars are for books that keep me up at night so I read them in one go, and while this book kept my attention, I wasn’t compelled to finish it in the same day. I thought Beneath the Keep was a well written and well woven fantasy tale, with some surprises about who’s actual hero/heroine’s journey we’re following until the bitter end. It left me wanting to read what happens next, which is always what I’m looking for in a series or, in this case, the prequel to a series.