This was the first book I read by Laura Weymouth and I immediately wanted to read more after finishing it. While initially given the premise (a girl seeking to avenge her sister’s sacrifice to the god in the mountain) and Weymouth’s previous novel The Light Between Worlds riffing off Chronicles of Narnia, I thought it would be more in dialogue with C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces than it turned out to be, it did not disappoint in any way.
Anya grows up in an isolated village where girls are raised for sacrifice to the god. Her sister volunteers to be the sacrifice in their generation, leaving Anya feeling like a coward. While the girls usually survive the ordeal and are left with some disability as a result, Anya’s sister Ilva perishes shortly after her return to the village, telling Anya to stop the sacrifices.
Meanwhile, a new sacrifice is soon needed as the god’s wrath begins to stir, unappeased by whatever happened with Ilva. Anya volunteers to travel across the country to the mountain as the new sacrifice, but her secret intent is to kill the god and end this brutal system once and for all.
What the book turns out to be in dialogue with is the discussion of abuse in church settings. Like many a victim of abuse by a spiritual leader, Anya and Ilva are raised believing their duty as women involves obedience and sacrifice. But the power-hungry men at the top of the system take advantage of this deliberately instilled belief. The girls are being hurt in plain sight, but somehow this isn’t enough to stir the villagers to rebellion, given the beliefs they have been taught. Instead, Anya’s anger at the system is taken as a flaw in her faith rather than a reaction to being hurt.
With that said, I should add there is no sexual abuse in the book that I noticed, though many bad things do happen to the characters. There’s a particularly creepy scene of forced tattooing that gets across the violation of something happening to the character’s body without her consent, though.
It’s not just the girls who are victimized by the system, although they are the primary targets. Anya’s love interest Tieran turns out to be one of the bravest characters who has survived so much, even though he initially comes off as untrustworthy and unreliable. The reveal of his backstory could almost be its own story or book.
By contrast, Anya’s father, a powerful landowner whom she meets for the first time towards the end of the book, is a very negative character despite his stand against the religious system that dominates the country. He turns out to be equally willing to make use of vulnerable girls for his own ends, and Anya’s efforts to avoid his control are compelling, as she asserts her independence from all factions. It’s not just about the bad ideology of the religious leaders–the secular characters can also be sexist and controlling.
Ultimately, Anya’s inner strength prevails against all comers. I highly recommend this book when it comes out on November 22nd.