Book Review: The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan

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THE POISON THRONE is the first book in The Moorehawke Trilogy from debut novelist Celine Kiernan. The first and second books have been out for over a year in Ireland, Australia (and other countries) and are being published by Orbit in the US and UK in April. Set in alternate 15th Century Europe, the trilogy follows protagonist-cum-narrator Wynter Moorehawke as she and her dying father return home after a 5 year absence up North, eager to join up with her two childhood friends, the two brothers Razi and Allberon, only to find a kingdom in the throes of religious and political turmoil. The once kind and enlightened King Jonathon has become a tyrant who opened the doors to the Inquisition, subverting the previous order. Now, the Cats who used to communicate with people have been killed and the Ghosts of the Castle have been declared non-existent. Even more distressing is the political instability as Alberon, the official heir to the throne is nowhere to be seen and his half-brother (and bastard son), Razi has been proclaimed the new heir. The story follows Wynter and her father as well as Razi and his best friend Christopher as they are caught up in the middle of transition.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Book Smugglers’ style of joint book reviews, we write (lengthy) conversational-style analyses of plot and characters. As this is our first post, we could think of no better way to introduce ourselves to the Tor.com community than to ramble on about a book we have just finished reading.

First Impressions:

Ana: I was a goner from the moment I started reading The Poison Throne. The first chapter was enough to pull me right into the story as Wynter muses about the ghost that would not talk to her. As the mysteries kept piling up and the characters and their relationships were unveiled to the reader, the book only got better. Whereas there is nothing new about the royal intrigue and the “reluctant heroine” tropes, the combination of the effective, captivating prose, the interesting choice of point of view, and the plethora of well-drawn characters was enough to make The Poison Throne fresh enough for me to enjoy from the get go.

Thea: Like Ana, I thoroughly enjoyed The Poison Throne. It’s a fun, quick book that blends an alternate historical fiction type of setting (fifteenth century France, according to the author) with smatterings of traditional high fantasy in the mix. I found The Poison Throne entertaining due to its enchanting heroine and the loveable trio of Razi (reluctant heir), Christopher (rakish outsider, yet a loyal friend), and Lorcan (Wynter’s loving but ailing father). My only complaint with The Poison Throne was how familiar it all felt, and how…quaint everything seemed. I’m a fan of the grittier school of fantasy, with political intrigue piled upon political intrigue, and characters a little more detailed and dimensioned. In comparison, The Poison Throne is sweet, but clearly on the Junior Varsity level.

On the Plot:

Ana: Plot-wise, the story is very simple with all characters – Wynter and her father Lorcan, Razi and his friend Christopher — seemly trapped by circumstances they have little say about. There isn’t a lot of plot development per se; some parts of the story happened outside the confines of this book, taking place years or months before. This has a twofold result. Firstly it means, that the story is engulfed in mystery and political intrigue: the narrator is someone who was not present when the changes took place and whose very nature as a girl and as someone who is under the protection of all males in the story prevents her from knowing more. At the same time, that propels her to try and find out what the heck is going on. Secondly, the very moment in which the story takes place – as the official heir is declared “dead in life” and the new heir struggles to accept his new position – is a defining choice of narrative and what makes the novel genuinely gripping.

The characters are all caught in a web and they are witnessing history taking place, as it happens. As the inquisition spreads its tentacles all over the kingdom (and why? What could possibly have caused that?), as the King turns from a loving father to a tyrannical, horrible man, the readers are left with the task of watching what happens to the characters in the thick of it all. One of the best examples is how Lorcan and Wynter, as carpenters, must erase Alberon’s face from the library’s carvings. So many times, stories begin with a figure already forgotten and erased from history – but not usually do we get to see if being done — who did the erasing, how did these people feel, what is the sort of frame of mind of a carpenter who has to de-face his own work of art?

I thought that choices of narrative’s momentum to be fantastic – in fact it reminded me of one of my favourite movies: Youssef Chahine’s Al massir (English title “The Destiny”) which depicts a similar moment in history in which the philosopher Averroes struggles for free speech in an increasingly fundamentalist Spain. Even though the type of extremism that propels the King in The Poison Throne is fundamentally different, the reactions of the characters, their despair and inability to do anything to stop it, is almost suffocating in both instances.

Thea: There’s one thing that I can agree with Ana on, regarding the plot for The Poison Throne:  it is a very simple story. A formerly benevolent king has, for some unknown reason, lost his frickin’ marbles. From the Bestest Kingdom in ALL the land (open to different races and creeds, respectful of women, slavery fully abolished, etc) it has slid into a realm of intolerance and fear. The King has decreed that cats cannot be spoken to, and anyone caught speaking to a ghost or feline will be tortured and killed. His true heir, Prince Alberon, has attempted a coup to take over the kingdom and has fled, forcing the King to declare him “dead in life,” and as a replacement, he arm-wrestles his eldest (and bastard) son Razi into the role as his heir. Razi has no desire to be heir and resists – but, as the Borg would say, resistance is futile, and when his friends are threatened (his bosom-buddy Christopher, in particular), Razi acquiesces to his father’s demands.

Basically, the novel follows these three main characters – Wynter, Razi and Christopher – as they are emotionally terrorized by the King. Plot-wise, it’s a straightforward, basic story. No surprises, twists or turns here, and no real political intrigue or reasoning (beyond a few shadowy conversations between Lorcan and Jonathon about a nefarious machine) transpire. In place of plot, Ms. Kiernan relies on emotional manipulation to propel the story along – the chiseling of Alberon’s face from Lorcan’s magnum opus, for example. The author shamelessly wrenches at these same emotional strings throughout the entire book (how feeble the formerly forbidable – hiyo, alliteration! – Lorcan is; Christopher’s poor battered body; Razi’s poor, terrible situation; Wynter’s overflowing tears for all of them). It’s an effective technique that will win over some readers’ sympathies, but its one that’s also bound to irritate others (such as myself).

In terms of world building, The Poison Throne also lacks any true distinction as it looks like countless other western European aristocracies in the 1400s. It’s solid and well-rounded enough, but perhaps this is in large part due to the fact that the book is basically set in our own familiar world. That said, I did find Ms. Kiernan’s choice to use real-world countries (Morocco, France) and religions (Christianity, Islam) an interesting one. The only actual fantastical elements to the story were the inclusion of ghosts, and of cats that can converse with humans – both very interesting takes, that I truly did enjoy.

On the characters:

Ana: This is where The Poison Throne truly shines.

The plot is not what propels story – the characters’ reactions to what is happening around them, is. Because details of the plot are carefully withheld and kept away from the narrator and therefore, the reader, the book ends up being a character study of times of grief. And The Poison Throne is extremely effective in what is sets out to do.

The plethora of characters who inhabit this book are well-drawn to the point where even the supposed Villain, King Jonathon evokes sympathy (although I did also, feel like physically sick and as though I needed to step into its pages to murder a character with my own hands) for his obvious need to be King before being a father or a friend as much as it can kill him inside.

Wynter is the reluctant heroine who feels she is not of the right gender or right age to do what she must do help her father, her friends Razi and Alberon for example but who, and not surprisingly, will. Razi, the older, bastard son who half Arab in a country increasingly closed to any influence from other cultures needs to leave all his dreams of being a doctor behind once his father declares him heir. His struggle to accept this is quite possibly the strongest aspect of the story along with the interconnecting relationships: between Razi and Wynter (almost brother and sister), between Razi and his friend Christopher whose very existence is the leverage the King needs to make Razi behave and between Razi and the King.

Many times did I cry reading this book: as a lover of character-driven novels, my emotions were completely engaged and despite some minor quibbles with regards to repetitive behaviour and re-hashed conflict (Wynter could be very whiney), I could not have asked for more.

Plus, as a romantic, the budding relationship between Christopher and Wynter is not bad either. Not bad at all.

Thea: As this is our first review over here at Tor.com, I should mention that Ana is an incredibly emotionally involved reader. I’m a little bit…different.

While I do agree that the characters were generally believable and genuine, everything felt a bit…familiar and clichéd, in my opinion. Wynter, as a heroine is solid if (again) very stock. Her devotion to her friends and her family is admirable, and her profession as a high-ranked apprentice carpenter (and her fears and insecurities of being a skilled apprentice in a man’s profession) is good stuff. Winter is honest, loving and forthright in this limited third person narration (which has us readers privy to her thoughts), and makes for an eminently likable character in that she’s neither some Amazonian warrior woman, nor is she a snivelling damsel in distress (well, there is some annoying snivelling).

And yet… My biggest problem with The Poison Throne was how sickeningly *good* and upstanding everyone was. Wynter is of course kind and loving and brave and loyal, not to mention she’s beautiful and has MAD carpentering skillz (on a related note, she also has the ability to cry at the drop of a hat – putting me in the mind of the dreaded Kate Austen Syndrome. I digress). Razi has no interest in the throne or power, and he never, ever missteps in his treatment of Wynter as her doting, loyal, oh-so-loving surrogate older brother. The felinely gorgeous Christopher (of course!) develops tender feelings for Wynter, despite his rakish tendencies and is your typical wounded, misunderstood outsider with a heart of gold. Lorcan is the father that every girl wishes she had, making every sacrifice and protection for his “baby girl” (an odd, anachronistic endearment used many, many times throughout). Even the big bad baddie Jonathon lacked any real teeth.

These aren’t bad things – but they make for a very sanitized, Disney-esque reading experience. That’s perfectly fine if you’re looking for a safe, contained, ‘you-know-where-it’s-going’ kind of read (heck, we all want those kinds of books from time to time). But for me, well, let’s say I asked for a hearty serving of filet mignon and potatoes, and instead got some cotton candy.

Final Thoughts & Verdict:

Ana: I absolutely loved The Poison Throne. As a character-driven novel it has “Ana” written all over it. From me it gets an 8 out of 10 – Excellent.

Thea: I enjoyed The Poison Throne. It’s fun and it’s charming – but GRRM it surely ain’t. I’ll definitely pick up the next two books in the series though (and I gotta say, Ms. Kiernan does earn brownie points because the entire series is already finished and will be released in the USA this year). I give it a 6.5 out of 10 – Good (but not groundbreaking).


Ana Grilo and Thea James are the two book review maniacs (and uber-dorks) behind TheBookSmugglers.com. When they aren’t voraciously devouring the latest and greatest in YA and speculative fiction, they can be found obsessing over TV spoilers (Ana), playing violent video games (Thea), and making other general plans towards world domination.

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