Beneath the Keep by Erika Johansen

Rate: 3/5

Medium: Audiobook

Overview (No Spoilers):

When I first started reading The Queen of the Tearling I was blown away by the first and second books. Johansen took a risk with the final installment of the trilogy that I could appreciate but didn’t leave me in the same state of awe that the previous two books had induced. Over time, my enthusiasm has dulled when I reminisce about this series, which was one of my top book recommendations following the first reading of the Queen of the Tearling. That said, when a friend mentioned that Johansen was releasing another book based in this literary realm I could not wait to get my hands on it! As a hard rule, I never read the synopsis of a book because oftentimes I find that too much is revealed or spoiled right from the get go. Several times this proclivity has resulted in confusion, such as when I was halfway through Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning before I realized it was a collection of short stories. In this case, I was an hour and a half from the end of Beneath the Keep before I had the dawning, ah-ha moment whenI realized that I’m reading a direct prequel to events that take place 18 or so years before the Queen of the Tearling. Properly chagrined, as I should have picked up on this timeline sooner due to names that span to the main trilogy, however it had been so long since I’d read the first three novels in the series that the names were no longer familiar. I’d pieced together that the story took place in the past, however I hadn’t quite placed the exact timeframe, that is until one key name is mentioned (See spoiler section) and then suddenly the whole novel fit neatly into the puzzle piece it had eluded thus far. The revelation made me want to start over right away to see what new insights could be gleaned now that I’d realized how many familiar faces were now scattered throughout this text.

Beneath the Keep was a surprisingly dark novel for the YA genre that this series typically aligns itself, but this was also true of the original trilogy. The characters endure prostitution, fight rings, mercy killings, pedophilia, rape, murder, executions, torture, and mind control to name a few. I’ve always appreciated that Johansen doesn’t shy away from darkness in her novels, which tend to lift her books above contemporaries in my opinion. 

Where I struggled with Beneath the Keep was that I didn’t find myself attached to any of the characters throughout much of this book. I was surprised at the lack of depth surrounding almost all of these characters, even the main ones that we follow the main perspective. That said, once the timeline snapped into place, there was a wealth of depth and backstory hidden in all of their futures. Had I been aware of identities throughout this read, I highly doubt this disconnect would have been felt strongly, if at all. 

Overall, I loved venturing back into a literary realm that I’ve recommended to many friends and family members throughout the years. The Tearling at the beginning of the original trilogy was not a happy place, and 18 years in the past, the events leading to this misery are revealed to be equally as disheartening. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about what trials and tribulations shaped key characters such as the Mace, Barty, and the Fetch.

Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound)

  • Kelsey’s birth was what initially triggered me to have the epiphany that this was a direct prequel to the initial trilogy. In hindsight I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about her mother. It made the end of the trilogy make more sense and Kelsey’s mother, Queen Elyssa was described as kind and caring, which was not what what we’d previously heard were traits of her personality?
  • How could Elyssa be so completely lost?
  • How did Mhurn end up back in the guard?
  • What happened to the children that Mace saved?
  • Learning Mace’s backstory was my favorite part of Beneath the Keep. I really want to now reread the first books to see how those pieces now fit together.
  • Where had Lady Glyn been hiding and how did Barty find her?

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