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.