The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan
After five years away on the King’s business, Wynter Moorehawke and Lorcan, her father, have returned to court. Though they are carpenters of common birth, they also serve their friend, King Jonathan, as Lord and Lady Protector. Wynter is excited to be reunited with her childhood friends Alberon and Razi, the King’s legitimate and illegitimate sons, respectively. They were like brothers to her and she and Lorcan were practically part of the King’s family. But it quickly becomes clear that things have changed dramatically since she’s been gone. King Jonathan has become a tyrant, and with her father’s fading health, Wynter realizes that even her own life could be in danger.
The Poison Throne is a pleasant read due to some immediately engaging characters: Wynter, Lorcan, Razi, Razi’s new friend Christopher, a ghost, and a palace cat. Kate Rudd, who narrated the audio version (Brilliance Audio), did a nice job with each of them. (I’ve noticed that Ms Rudd is especially good with books with young female protagonists.) I liked all of these characters right from the start — there are many tender moments in The Poison Throne and this was definitely the best part of the book.
Except for the opening and closing scenes, all of the plot occurs inside the castle grounds (most inside the castle itself) and involves a lot of political maneuvering, silly court behavior, sneaking around, concern and conversation about what everyone else thinks and does, etc. It’s a lot of emotion and angst (“Oh, Razi!” “Oh, Christopher!” “Oh, Dad!”) and some of the characters’ interactions and decisions are sometimes hard to believe.
The general setting and history are a bit far-fetched, too. For example, we’re told that this kingdom had formerly been stable, prosperous, and happy, with the royal family enjoying favor among the people. King Jonathan was a good and fair man until recently. If so, why is Wynter (as soon as she returns, before she realizes that things have changed) so hung up on perfectly proper courtly behavior? Why does she worry that the court will eat Christopher alive if he makes a social blunder? She’s so concerned that he’ll never be accepted because of his common ancestry — yet she used to be a commoner, too. Plotwise, it’s unclear why King Jonathan has to order his thuggish personal guard to kill people so that he can stop them from going out the guarded castle gate. Since he’s such a tyrant, why doesn’t he just tell the guards at the gate not to let them through? These things (and a few others) may be perfectly explainable — perhaps I missed something — but there were several times that I felt like I only had a loose grasp on why some things were happening or why Wynter, Razi, and Christopher had to take certain drastic and dangerous actions. I just wasn’t convinced about a few important aspects of the plot.
In the end, there is a lot more angst than believable plot in The Poison Throne and it takes a long time to get to what feels like “Scene 2” at the end of the book. However, because the characters are so endearing, it’s pleasant to spend time with them, even when they are just sitting around wondering what’s going on. Because there’s a mystery to solve and it feels like something exciting may actually be starting to happen (we’re leaving the castle!), I have to admit that I’m looking forward to reading on in The Crowded Shadows. If you don’t insist on a quick and tight plot, The Moorehawke Trilogy may turn out to be a fun story. I recommend trying it on audio.
The Poison Throne is the engaging first book in THE MOOREHAWKE TRILOGY, which was first published in Ireland in 2008. It seems to be directed toward a young adult audience; but aside from the fact that the heroine is 15 years old, there is little to distinguish it from an adult fantasy. In fact, the ethical and moral dilemmas posed in the book make it quite adult, even if there are ghosts and talking cats inhabiting its pages.
Celine Kiernan has stated that The Poison Throne is set in the mid-1400’s or so, though it involves a Europe that never existed, one in which there was never a Moorish invasion or any crusades. Europe is much more fragmented than it was in our world, with many small powers that are always shadowed by aggressive larger ones. Kiernan is careful to keep many of the details of her book within the realm of a parallel reality, so that her heroine’s status as an apprentice carpenter, for instance, is support by guild records showing a few women having attained journeyman status in the trades in those times in our world. The world-building here is quite nicely done, not intruding overly into the plot, but so fully realized that there are no discordant notes that might throw a reader out of the story.
Wynter and her father, Lorcan, have returned to the capital of Jonathon’s kingdom after five years of exile in the north, apparently to help quell a rebellion (though this is never explained to my satisfaction). They find that much has changed in the ensuing years. Jonathan has become a violent despot so afraid of threats against his throne that he has actually succeeded in creating threats. Not least among them is his son, Alberon, whom he has disowned. Jonathon seeks to elevate his illegitimate son, Razi, to the position of heir to the throne, a position that Razi neither seeks nor wants. Jonathon’s actions put Razi in danger, as those loyal to Alberon believe Razi has somehow bewitched his father — a conclusion that they feel is explained by the fact that Razi is a Musulman (or Muslim, as we would say). Jonathon has also forbidden anyone to speak with cats (who are as arrogant, haughty and dismissive of humans as they are in our own world, but who here can say the things we always imagine our own cats are thinking) or to acknowledge the presence of ghosts, even as they gobble trays of tarts before his subjects’ very eyes.
Wynter is quickly ensnared in the political strife rending the kingdom, in large part because her father’s health is swiftly declining. She was close to Razi when they were children, and is close to his heart again upon their return; they are as brother and sister. Razi’s constant companion, Christopher, becomes close to her in a different way, as she feels herself falling in love with him, despite his tomcatting ways. But Razi must distance himself from Wynter, and finds he must also send Christopher away when his friendship with the man leads to rumors of a sexual relationship, a type of relationship not merely frowned on but punishable by death in this culture and period.
I found this book interesting primarily because shows an epic fantasy from the other side, as it were: a young woman and her father seem to be firmly supportive of a king who is just barely short of a tyrant. Why they stand by him is not yet clear, but there are bits and pieces of the plot that indicate Jonathon and Lorcan share a military past that put Jonathon on the throne – though that is somewhat confusing, as it seems that Jonathon’s father was also king. And Razi, too, seems to be a less than ideal leader. Perhaps he is merely a character in his time, but the scenes in which Razi is inflicting torture on a would-be assassin are unusual; most heroes of fantasy novels reject such conduct outright, regardless of how out-of-place such a rejection would be in the real world.
I hope the politics become a bit clearer as the series progresses, because they are central to these novels. In fact, little happens after about the midpoint of the book except political maneuvering. For me, this makes the book more interesting than would an action or adventure focus. I’d rather read about relationships than wars. But as the book ends, it seems war is exactly where things are headed.
Wynter is the type of strong female character I love to find in a novel, and especially in a young adult novel. Her work is unusual for a girl, and she is very good at it; she has even learned well how to handle men who think she shouldn’t be allowed to do what she does. She can handle herself politically in difficult situations, but is also vulnerable and confused when she does not understand what is going on. I admired her bravery as much as I sympathized with her confusion and fear.
The Moorehawke Trilogy — (2008-2010) Publisher: Politics and Corruption. Insurgencies. Racial intolerance. Religious repression. And a weapon of Mass Destruction. No, this is not 2008, but the world of The Moorehawke Trilogy: an imagined medieval Europe, peppered with historical improbabilities, like talking cats and vicious and violent ghosts. The first book The Poison Throne, is no twee fantasy, but more a gothic graphic novel with powerful emotional relationships and a visually stunning landscape. Chief protagonist is Wynter Moorehawke, an older than her years master craftswoman, whose childhood was spent within the royal court. Skilled at diplomacy and game playing, Wynter nonetheless finds herself totally shaken by the realm that she returns to after five years away. Days of laughter, friendly ghosts and chatty cats remain only in her memory’s eye. The present confronts her with power play, intrigue, and dark torture chambers; violent wailing spirits and cats (those that are still alive) too scared to talk to humans. The Inquisition has become a real and present danger. Wynter’s fate lies with the resistance, but does that resistance come from within the realm or without? Together with her great friend The Lord Razi and his mysterious friend Christopher Garron, Wynter must try and restore the Kingdom to its former stability and peace. But this new Kingdom is a dangerous place, where all resistance is brutally suppressed, and the trio run the constant risk of imprisonment, torture and death.
I just took this book out from the library on Tuesday. Am really looking forward to reading it :) great review and thx for the info.
Let me know how you like it, Karoline!
I’m reading book 2 now.
You certainly make that book sound interesting. And I always like finding YA fantasy that’s more traditional fantasy than urban fantasy, because it seems like there’s so little of the former when compared to the latter. I’ll have to see if I can track down a copy of The Poison Throne and give it a try. Thanks for the recommendation!
Wait!… Wait until we’ve posted Terry’s review of the second book. We’ll try to do that tomorrow. Also, I’ve reviewed these books, too.
I think Terry and I both agree that while this first book was good, the second was disappointing.
Yes, Kat, to say that the second book was disappointing is to put it mildly. Bibliotropic, you might want to try Kristin Cashore or Laini Taylor instead of Celine Kiernan — they’re excellent.
Both I’ve read on of Taylor’s books and loved it, and Cashore’s an author I’ve been meaning to look into for some time now. Thanks for the advice and additional recommendatons! :)