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Book Review: The Butcher by Laura Kat Young

Book Review: The Butcher by Laura Kat Young

October is traditionally the month to indulge in stories of chills and terrors. In most cases, those terrors take the form of actual monsters. Vampires, ghosts, zombies, werewolves. These are the demons and beasts we’re brought up to be frightened of. But the monstrous creatures in Laura Kat Young’s debut novel, The Butcher, take an altogether more human form. And it’s that recognisable, all-too familiar horror that makes this such a fear-provoking, discomforting read.

Lady Mae is the daughter of the infamous Butcher, whose job is to dismember the guilty residents of their settlement as punishment for their crimes. The worse the wrongdoing, the more brutal the maiming. It’s a stomach-turning occupation that Lady Mae will inherit when she turns eighteen. Lady Mae and her mother are already town pariahs but they continue to follow the rules because they don’t have a choice; because the alternative would see them face a sentence worse than any punishment the Butcher could inflict.

When Lady Mae’s mother refuses to harm a child, the Deputies come to the house for retribution. Lady Mae is forced to watch as they murder her mother. Now alone in the world, Lady Mae takes up the mantle as the Butcher. But unrest is brewing in Settlement Five and a reunion with the boy she grew up with – now a man with ideas that stretch beyond their claustrophobic small town – will set Lady Mae on her own path of retribution. As she continues to live her nightmare existence, Lady Mae must choose between hate and forgiveness, and between staying put and seeking the freedom she’s always dreamt of.

“Remember forgiveness. Remember it as you would your own self.”

When her mother spoke those words, Lady Mae found herself lunging and throwing her arms around her mother; she did not know what else to do. It was not the first time that day that her mother had spoken of forgiveness, but it would be her last.

Whilst it’s never explicitly described as such, The Butcher has the definite feel of a dystopian novel, blending historical fiction with small-town America horror. It has similar Wild West vibes to Westworld, with echoes of the totalitarian society of The Handsmaid’s Tale, but this is the kind of story that creates its own unique terror. Young never shrinks away from the ugliness of such an inhuman way of life and the level of despair and melancholy is relentless to the point of being overwhelming. The sheer powerlessness that the characters feel – particularly Lady Mae, who has such a fierce sense of justice – is palpable.

There are very few moments of happiness in this book, but the brief flickers of light are like a refreshing breeze after a protracted heatwave. Those moments almost always revolve around Lady Mae and her childhood friend turned lover Arbuckle, who is the glimmer of brightness in the darkness of Lady Mae’s world. Even though you sense that there can’t be a happy ending for them – the brutality of their society would never allow such a thing – you still hope that Lady Mae and Arbuckle will escape the chains that shackle them to a life they both despise. Whilst the wider world-building is frustratingly minimal, Young really makes you care about what happens to these two broken and kind-hearted souls.

The moral of The Butcher might preach forgiveness but readers are likely to find themselves yearning for Lady Mae to wreak vengeance on her tormentors. Laura Kat Young has written a painfully human heroine who feels and hurts and bleeds like we all do. The world might not be relatable but Lady Mae’s inner turmoil is.

Brutal, heart-wrenching and unflinchingly dark, The Butcher isn’t a novel many people will be able to read more than once but it’s certainly a novel that imprints itself on your memory.


The Butcher was published by Titan Books on 13 September 2022

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