dark, engrossing, and fantastic
WHITE STAG is a really fantastic YA fantasy that I was absolutely pulled into and found it hard to put down. We mainly follow Janneke/Janneka (male/female declension as she was raised to be a male heir), a human who was captured and brought into the Permafrost by a goblin. Since then, she has been a thrall (slave) to goblins. The first goblin (Lydian) who enslaved her tortured her (see warnings below) before giving her as a gift to his nephew (Soren). Soren has treated her quite differently, as a friend/confidante, and in that time, Janneke has begun to trust him although she has never forgotten what he is (a monster as she was raised to believe).
Janneke both fears and hates Lydian, determined to kill him but frightened of the terrible torture he inflicted on her. At a goblin gathering, she begins to fight with him (and thus Soren joins in to protect her). The fight ends because the Erlking (goblin king) has died and the stag has been released. The white stag is the embodiment of the goblin king's power and belongs to the strongest goblin. The deadly hunt begins, all the goblins who wish to become king heading out to find the stag and become the next king, forming temporary alliances and frequently backstabbing. Before they leave, Soren tells Janneke something she finds quite frightening- she may be joining with the permafrost as a changeling, transforming into the "monsters" she fears- a goblin. Determined to fight it with every beat of her heart, Janneke is thrust even further into the dangerous realm and the deadly politics that are arising.
Full of magical creatures, battles, and even a touch of romance, this book was absolutely incredible, and I really loved every step of the journey. I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who loves engaging YA fantasy. However, I would add warnings for rape (in the past/acknowledged, not described in too much detail), torture (physical and mental), and mutilation (could fall under torture).
One of the major themes of the book is that our choices are what make us monsters, not our very essence, and that everyone could be a monster to someone else/elements of perspective (you are a monster to the animals you kill for food or to the grass that you walk on, etc.). This was a really important and intriguing discussion which underlies a lot of the epiphanies in the book. To add to that, the characters were all very well fleshed out and there were so many I really enjoyed, especially Seppo, but also of course the main two of Soren and Janneke. Although the description talks about Janneke being raised as a male, this was a relatively smaller piece of the story and only mentioned occasionally in reflections/was not as big a part of the book as I expected from the description. Instead, we mostly see Janneke's journey to come to terms with all her past, present, and future and understand/appreciate who she is.
Overall, I really loved this story, and I cannot wait until the next is released. While there's a bit of a lead-in to the next book, this one is wrapped up/not a big cliffhanger. This was an incredible world, and I absolutely loved every second I spent in it. Recommend for people who enjoy dark YA fantasy.