Poison, by Chris Wooding
If I were a movie, what would I be rated? PG-13
Any spoilers in this review? Yup! I quote enough it would be hard to make this review spoiler safe. Apologies.
Summary: Poison has always been a willful, contrary girl, prone to being argumentative and stubborn. So when her sister is snatched by the mean-spirited faeries, she seeks out the Phaerie Lord to get her back. But finding him isn’t easy, and the quest leads Poison into a murderous world of intrigue, danger, and deadly storytelling. With only her wits and her friends to aid her, Poison must survive the attentions of the Phaerie Lord, rescue her sister, and thwart a plot that’s beyond anything she (or the reader) can imagine…
Alright, so this book came out of the left field. I read it ages ago, so my memory of it was mainly an impression of profoundness and really, really enjoying it. This didn’t mean much, though, because my opinions and standards have changed since I read this oh-so-many years ago.
We’ll start with the plot, which is basic enough. Her sister gets kidnapped and she goes to get her sister back. However, the simple plot morphs over time. Frankly, by the end it felt like a bait and switch, as if Wooding realized the plot was a wee bit too simple, so turned it into a murder mystery, then a coming of age, and then wrapped it up. Simple plots can be good, though, and it did a small disservice to the book to change it by the end. After all, the drive Poison had to get of Gull and just to save her sister was wonderful in itself, simple or not.
Now to the characters, which also were… basic enough. Poison bordered on a Mary Sue at times—what with her special violet eyes and tough, no nonsense, “everyone wants to be a princess; it’s boring” (page 115) character. I found myself at least once thinking with a little bit of disgust “yes, you’re special little snowflake.” But there’s no need to diss princesses. There’s no shame in being a princess, and it doesn’t make you cooler to scorn being one. But Mrryk points out on page 115 that at least they’re not the overused warrior, sorceress, and thief trope. And we can be happy for that. However…
There’s a line you can cross when pulling off this style of storytelling. Wooding almost crossed it. As an author, you can point out the flaws and the weak plot points via characters sometimes. It’s a way to acknowledge that, yes, you see how ridiculous X is and, look, the character recognizes it too! And sometimes that’s okay. But sometimes it’s a wee bit shoddy. Pointing out the flaws yourself as the author doesn’t justify their existence. Melcheron did it to Poison a few times in their conversation, either about her own character and reactions or about a past plot point—like Mrryk and how he never needed to eat even after 100 years.
Overall, it didn’t get too heavy handed. And Wooding didn’t lean on it as a crutch, which was good. But his characters did feel like various archetypes. Like, of course Poison began to care for Peppercorn. And of course Peppercorn was flighty and emotional, a good foil for Poison—to show that Poison did care, but also that Poison was much more on top of things compared to Peppercorn. And of course there’s a vague father figure in Bram. That kind of thing. It wasn’t terrible or overdone, but it was headed in that direction.
But there was a reason for Mrryk and Melcheron pointing out the things they did, even though it got a bit annoying at times. It worked towards the meat of the plot, which is actually where I had some trouble. Because the worldview taken to it’s full extent is… a little scary. And I didn’t like the conclusions it, I believe, unintentionally came to. Especially as the plot—the Hierophant angle—can easily be a real life worldview.
Here’s an excerpt from page 203:
Poison would have shed a tear then, if she had any left. “You’re fictions, all of you. Just like me.”
“How can you think that?” Fleet cried, suddenly spurred to animation. “We feel, we love, we cry, we bleed, we sacrifice. . . . If that is not life, then what is? What’s your definition, Poison? How can you think that the Hierophant is controlling you somehow? Don’t you make your own choices? Didn’t you choose to come on this quest?”
“But did I? I don’t know,” she said, sinking back to the pillows. “If ever I needed proof that my choices are illusions, you have just given it to me. Look what happens when I refuse to do as he wants. The story is fading around me. Why can’t I choose to give up?”
Ok, that’s skirting some very fine lines about suicide here. And it can so easily be applied to real life. So, if you’re reading this book and don’t have an opinion on where you end up after you die, I just… taken to the full conclusion, what’s the point of living? It’s more powerful to take your own life and prove you have control than living in a world—real or fictional—where you’re not sure you control your own destiny. And that, anyone-who-reads-this, is a very, very sketchy ground to trod on in stories. Especially for the audience age group this is for.
The turn around happens on pages 205 to 207.
“You’re fictions . . . ” she protested weakly.
“Yes, yes, I’ve heard that, too,” he snarled. “Fictions. Ridiculous! I’m as alive as you, and you’re as alive as the Hierophant. We’re all alive, Poison. By any definition you have, we’re alive. Even if you think we’ve been given life by someone else. We all have dreams and ambitions, we all have plans and wishes, and you’re taking them all away from us.” He stood up, making a gesture of disgust with one gloved hand. “Didn’t you ever believe in a god, Poison?”
“When I was young . . .” she croaked.
“Then how is this different?”
“Because then I believed . . . I had control of my own destiny. . . .”
“But don’t you see?” Bram cried. “You’ve proved your point! You do have control over your own destiny. You’re choosing to die, choosing to kill us all with you. Nobody has stopped you; nobody can stop you except yourself. It doesn’t matter what the consequences of your choice are, but you made it yourself.”
Poison was frankly surprised that Bram had thought that up himself. “That’s . . . good enough,” she said, wiping the lank strands of her hair away from her face. “If the only way to make the world right . . . is to do what he wants me to do . . . then it’s no choice at all.”
“You don’t have the right to kill us all!” he cried.
“How do you know . . . you’re even alive?” she countered.
“How does anyone? How does anyone know anything? There’s never any true answers, Poison. Everything is uncertain. That’s life. We can only deal with the world as we are presented with it. Don’t you appreciate that? All I want from life is to get back home, to buy that house in the mountains, and to never have to think about phaeries and Hierophants ever again! You’re robbing me of that dream, Poison! What gives you the right to decide whether all of us deserve to live?”
“Because . . .” she whispered. “Because you’re all dying. Because you’re all dying because I’m dying. What gives you the right to make me live? How can you make me responsible for the whole world?”
“You are responsible for the whole world!” Bram said, suddenly triumphant. “And do you know what that means?”
Poison frowned. “I don’t . . .”
“It means this is your story, you fool!” he cried.
[…] “It means you have power over it just like the Hierophant does!” Bram cried. “If I die, if Peppercorn dies . . . well, the world will go on as normal. But because you’re dying, the whole tale collapses. Don’t you see? You’re the heroine! This is your story. Without you, it doesn’t work.” Bram’s eyes were flashing now with manic enthusiasm. “So if this is your tale, then take control of it! Fight back! Do something!”
“Do what?” Poison said weakly. “How can . . . how can I fight?”
“I don’t know!” Bram said, stamping around the room. “You’re the clever one. You’ve overcome everything that he’s thrown at you so far. Fight back, and there’s a chance, a chance you can do something about your situation. Are you willing to throw your life away—all our lives!—without being certain? Try! And if you fail, you can always give up again.”
So, I don’t even know where to begin with dissecting the logic Bram puts forth. And I realize that this story is fictional, and fantasy at that, but all stories have some foot in the real world. And the reasoning used here, applied to real life, is… well, I find it a bit horrifying? Especially Bram’s last line.
(Side note: Bram read OOC in that entire scene and the entire time all I could think was, “Yes, you know why you’re so surprised at Bram’s character change, Poison? Because this is a last ditch effort by some Hierophant somewhere to save everyone’s skin and they’re using Bram to be their mouth.” Honestly.)
The writing style and everything about this felt like it was directed for the younger side of the middle school age group, despite mostly seeing it on YA shelves on Goodreads. It’s a clever little story, but because of the worldview, I’d be incredibly wary letting just anyone read it. Read at the wrong time, it could drive someone into a downward spiral. Or maybe I’m just being overdramatic. I certainly didn’t pick up on it from what I can remember reading it ages ago, but I was and am entirely oblivious to some things at times. I just don’t want to underestimate the power of the written word. So the worldview in this alarmed me.
Overall, because of plot, the book felt a bit… meh. Indecisive, especially with the way it all wrapped up and Poison never did get to see her sister again. I can’t decide if I’d recommend this or not, but if you read it because of this review, drop me a comment or such with your thoughts. Or link me to your review. Whichever.
What some people might be uncomfortable reading about in this book because of personal opinion or belief: less than five curses at the most, kidnapping, death threats to the main character—anything you’d expect in a fairytale retelling, since this definitely has a fairytale vibe through most if it. PG-13 at the most, for disturbing images, some violence, and dangerous situations. Some of the antagonists were very disturbing. (Looking at you, Lady of Spiders.) There was no sex or romance.