The Poison Throne: Engaging first book

Celine Kiernan The Moorehawke Trilogy 1. The Poison Throne 2. The Crowded Shadows 3. The Rebel PrinceThe Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan fantasy book reviewsThe Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan

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.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

View all posts by Terry Weyna


  1. 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! :)


  1. Suvudu Likes: 7/27/13 | Del Rey and Spectra - Science Fiction and Fantasy Books, Graphic Novels, and More - [...] Review: The Poison Throne by Joe Celine Kiernan, read by Fantasy Literature [...]

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