Thursday, 29 April 2010

Book Review: The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan

Buy this book from

"Young Wynter Moorehawke returns to court with her dying father to find her old home cloaked in fear. The once-benevolent King Jonathon is now a violent despot, terrorising his people while his son Alberon plots a coup from exile. Then darkness spreads as the King appoints Alberon's half-brother Razi as heir. Wynter must watch her friend obey his father's untenable commands, as those they love are held to ransom. And at the heart of matters lies a war machine so lethal that none dare speak of it. The kingdom would belong to its master, yet the consequences of using it are too dire to consider.

"But temptation has ever been the enemy of reason..."

The greatest failing of The Poison Throne is its beginning: the first handful of chapters, which chronicle young Wynter Moorehawk and her ailing father's telling return to the Royal capital after a five-year exile abroad, are a rather muddled affair. And beginnings are imperative things - particularly the beginnings of fantasy sequences such as this, a far-reaching tale stretched out across three books (with a prequel still to come). Never is it more important to grasp an audience's attention than when setting out to tell a story that will take months, if not years of sustained interest to hear told in full, and debut Irish author Celine Kiernan seems too tentative in laying the necessary groundwork for the narrative to come.

It's not a matter of world-building, of which there's precious little of in The Poison Throne - though Kiernan gradually communicates all she needs to of the kingdom Wynter and company must somehow restore - but rather of character. The author seems to be getting to grips with her modest cast even as we, the readers, endeavour to begin an understanding of them, and though it's not long before their patterns and quirks are established, pivotal events - perhaps the most pivotal in all of The Poison Throne, which tells, for all its promise of greater things to come, a small and admirably focused story - pivotal events have passed by nearly unnoticed in the initial chorus of confusion that comes of a lack of proper context.

Better, certainly, that we felt their import in the first instance, but Kiernan, once she and characters have found their feet, shores up all that is of significance before the narrative progresses any further. Much of what follows is political maneuvering: courtly intrigue and princely hijinx courtesy of our teenaged protagonist's proximity to the titular throne, in desperate crisis after an attempted coup. Wynter's half-brother is next in line to rule the kingdom, but the people think Razi an unwelcome pretender; while her father would make for a valuable ally to the tyrannical monarch who sits for the 14th century, South of France-inspired kingdom - if only his health were to improve. Wynter is caught in the middle of it all, but wily and wise, she is far from powerless to stop the crimson tide of an uprising.

The unfortunate tentativeness that mars the first, foundling stages of The Poison Throne does nothing to diminish the energy and enthusiasm which Kiernan brings to her tale thereafter. The endless politicking might sound tiresome, and though it goes on perhaps a touch longer than necessary, the author's tremendously pacy prose and a cast of characters constantly in flux (once they've been established, that is) make all the puppeteering easy to swallow. Kiernan spins a colourful, vivacious web of a narrative that, while slow to come into its own, moves in time at an effortless gallop: from a trip to the dungeon with a forbidden feline to a fight with a drunken king, one delightful encounter follows another.

In the end, it's hard not to fall for The Poison Throne. It has a heart of gold that shines through from one cover to the other. It's not quite Young Adult fantasy - class conflict, racism and threats of rape find their way into the narrative - nor quite the full mature monty, but Celine Kiernan makes her debut work as something that straddles the line between the two. Down-to-earth, endearing and so energetic as to be exhausting at times, The Poison Throne is a fine first novel, and moreover, you get the sense that from here on out, things will only get better. Roll on The Crowded Shadows...


The Poison Throne
by Celine Kiernan
April 2010, Orbit

Buy this book from / /
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Recommended and Related Reading


  1. Hm. I disagree with you over the first chapters. I think that Wynter's own bewilderment over what she has come back to, and her hesitant attempts to fit back into the life of the kingdom and understand what has happened in her absence are actually complemented by the writing at the beginning. It becomes surer as Wynter does. It's actually that chaotic, tentative feel in those chapters that really sucked me in.

    Agree on all the rest though. It's a fine, likeable book.

    (I have read The Crowded Shadows!)

  2. I really enjoyed this book and an looking forward to The Crowded Shadows. I have thought myself on this book being kind of YA but there are issues that are beyond YA. I found this an easy book to get into and barrel through. In the end I loved the characters. They are what drove the book for me. I got to know the world by the characters - heritage, history, actions, and what has happened to them.

    I thought the first few chapters where the way they are to try and give us a feel of how things have changed from before Wynter and her father have left. I could have been wrong. *shrug shoulders*

    But in the end I really did Love this book. Great review!

  3. Hmm, I didn't actually like this book hugely - maybe it was the beginning that ruined it for me - but after reading this review I suddenly feel like reading The Crowded Shadows. :D

    Anyway, I reviewed this book as well, a while back, hope you don't mind if I link to your review from mine! Thanks :)