The Poison Throne is the first book in the Moorehawke trilogy by Celine Kiernan. The second book in this fantasy series, The Crowded Shadows, is already out in some countries including the author’s native Ireland. It will be coming out in the US in July 2010 even though The Poison Throne just came out there in April. The final book, The Rebel Prince, will be released for the first time in the fall 2010 (October 18 in the US).
At first, fifteen-year-old Wynter Moorehawke is ecstatic to be returning home after spending a long time in the North with her father, who is now in poor health. However, she finds that much has changed during her absence. She finds it strange when a cat runs away from her when she tries to speak to it, which never would have happened when she was the King’s Cat-Keeper. Later, she tries to talk to a ghost she used to be on friendly terms with and he also refuses to converse with her.
Once she is reunited with her friend Razi, the king’s oldest bastard son by an Arab woman, she learns some of the truth – the king has been acting very strangely. He sent away his son Alberon, the heir to the throne, and Razi suspects there is more to the explanation for his departure than he has been told. Also, the king has decreed there are no ghosts and he had all of Wynter’s cats poisoned as if he were afraid they may reveal a big secret.
Although Wynter is horrified, the situation only gets worse as she settles back into court life. The king declares Alberon to be “mortuus in vita” (dead in life) and has every trace of him removed. Furthermore, he forces Razi to become his new heir, even though he does not want the role both due to loyalty to his brother and a desire to escape politics and practice medicine. Wynter may be the only person who can discover the reasons the kingdom has been cast in turmoil – but it may cost her.
The Poison Throne did not hook me immediately and there were a few issues with it, but it was an entertaining story that kept me reading after getting through a few chapters. It was a simple, straightforward story and did not strike me as anything exceptional or out of the ordinary, but it was absorbing once it got going. The novel takes place in an alternate France during the 1400s, but I wouldn’t have recognized it as Europe if not for the fact that it mentioned the Moroccos a few times. There are a few differences between this setting and world history in addition to ghosts and talking cats.
The main factor that prevented me from enjoying it earlier was my early impression of the main character, Wynter. In the first couple of chapters she seemed likable enough, then she found her old friend Razi and was quite appalled to meet his new friend, Christopher. At first, she mistakes him for an acrobat, then she decides he is a rake since he was quite obviously just with one of the women nearby. From one perspective, I can understand her beliefs about him, but she seemed very quick to judge him very harshly as the type of person who used everyone, including Razi, based on this:
She found herself glaring up at this man, her rage such that she made no effort to hide it. I’ve met lots of people. Just. Like. You.
You saw them all the time in palace life, people who latched on. People who used. They would find someone close to the throne and befriend them, usually separating them from the people who cared about them, before bleeding them dry. Not that Razi was any type of idiot. But Wynter had seen fear, isolation and need make fools of the wisest men. I’m watching you, she thought as the young man curled his lip at her in a very speculative smile. I have your measure. [pp. 36]
It’s one thing to jump to conclusions in one’s head, but Wynter made no attempts to be polite toward Christopher and wait to see if he really was the despicable example of human nature she thought him to be even though Razi was obviously fond of him. She was jealous and petty and quite rude to him, and it made it hard for me to warm up to her early on. Throughout the rest of the book, she doesn’t tend to act this way, but she seemed rather annoying and immature during this particular episode.
In spite of this, I did generally like the characters although they did confuse me at times and Wynter did remain my least favorite. She had a loyalty to those she cared about and a desire to seek that truth that I admired, but she was also the least interesting as she largely seemed to be lacking in importance until near the end – until that point, she just seemed to be the person who tied everyone together.
Christopher was my favorite of the bunch and seemed the most real. Wynter’s judgment of him was not completely inaccurate as he was a bit of a womanizer, but he was also caring, the most vulnerable and the most open. As Wynter often observed (and worried about), he didn’t play the court games and he just seemed the most real to me, as well as the one who seemed to act most true to his character. I found Razi’s actions a bit confusing at times – it seemed like he only did extremes. He was sometimes very, almost sickeningly, good with his treatment of his friends (which could describe almost everyone in this book), but he also displayed a cruel streak several times, including once with one of those same friends. It could be argued that he was trying to do what he thought was best, but even with that explanation, I felt some his behavior didn’t quite ring true.
By the end, the question of why exactly the king has turned into such a harsh ruler is still unanswered, although there are plenty of hints and part of the story is revealed. Some glimpses of goodness leave one wondering just what made the king turn into this tyrant who would have his own son erased from history, and I look forward to finding out more about what happened and the reason behind these actions.
The Poison Throne is a fun, easy to read book with a rather intriguing mystery in what has changed during Wynter’s absence from the kingdom. At times, a couple of the protagonists seem to behave out of character, but one of them was sympathetic and likable. In spite of any issues, it kept me wondering what would happen next and I would like to read the next volume in the series.
My Rating: 7/10
Where I got my reading copy: The publisher sent me a copy.