We Interrupt This Death to Bring You POISON
March 24, 2011
I just counted, and it turns out I am 50 books in the hole. Never fear. I’m determined to philosophize at you every bit as oppressively as a garlic-eating professor in a small academic office for at least two more posts, but I’m kind of stuck at the end of my next post about death–you know, the part where I’m supposed to draw conclusions? So I will take a break from that and tell you about a strange book I read, and make it 49. It was a fantasy. It was kind of good, it was kind of not, but I liked it.
Orbit 2010, first published in Ireland 2008
read early March
This book puzzled me on so many fronts. Once upon a time there were two delectable, expressive, agonized, sensitive-yet-warlike boys, both of them friends to a beautiful, artistic and exquisitely tenderhearted yet tough and politically savvy girl who is clearly going to get her choice of chocolate or vanilla sooner or later. That was part of the point of the book, but I’m not sure what else was. There was no physical throne. There was a torture device shaped like a chair in the dungeons, but nobody said it was poisonous, and it didn’t cary enough dramatic weight to be The Throne of the title. The atmosphere around the monarchy in Kiernan’s world was so oppressive that for a long time I believed she was planting clues toward something supernaturally evil attached to the kingship, poisoning the minds and morals of rulers. By the time the book ended, though, I wasn’t so sure.
The most noticeable feature of The Poison Throne was the way every character was turned up to their full emotional volume all the time. This was probably meant to reflect the unbearable tension of the situation in which they found themselves clear through the book. In terms of pacing, picture this novel as wind sprint. After five years roaming the world (why?), a skilled carpenter father and his apprentice carpenter daughter (predictably fetching in boys’ togs) who are also noble folk (noble carpenters?–not explained) return to their home kingdom only to find that the king (who is old friends with papa carpenter) is Being Bad and taking the whole kingdom with him. Racial prejudice, gallows at the crossroads, all that. Plus he’s disowned his teenaged son. No one really talks about why this happened until quite late in the book. By then you’d think it’s some terribly exotic crime, but no; it’s mostly just that the crown prince got rebellious and ran off with his uncle who objected to the king’s badness, reasonably enough. So now the king wants to make his bastard son his heir, but his bastard son, who is a physician (though no less young and delectable for this), is loyal to his half brother. So the king blackmails the bastard into doing his will by inflicting pain on his (the bastard’s) sexually-venturesome maimed gypsy best friend and horse-trainer who may or may not also be his lover. PSYCHIC AGONY FOR THE BASTARD PHYSICIAN AND HIS FRIENDS! ESPECIALLY THE GIRL! WHO HATED THE SEXY GYPSY FOR A LITTLE WHILE WHEN SHE FIRST MET HIM BUT MAY ACTUALLY BE FALLING FOR HIM NOW!
Plus, papa carpenter is sick with a weak heart from rheumatic fever or something. A surprising lot of the book is devoted to painful descriptions of him dragging himself around the castle trying to look normal because of fraught-but-vague political undercurrents, then collapsing, and the daughter and boys expecting him to die any minute. In the very midst of their grief and worry and they must keep up appearances and go off and politick among the hostile nobles and bullying king. More psychic agony.
The best things about The Poison Throne–though I know you won’t believe me when I say so–were the ghosts and the talking cats. One of the baddest ways the king went bad was to *slight spoiler* kill the cats and make ghosts illegal. The ghosts are a little bit like the ones in A Tale of Time City, except that they are semi-corporeal and can (if not too upset) converse intelligently. Since the king can’t kill the ghosts, his subjects have to pretend they don’t exist–ignore them when they speak. This paranoid fellow doesn’t like talking cats and ghosts because he thinks they will tell his secrets.
What’s the king’s secret? I’m not sure. I mean, there is one, but it’s still all mysterious at the end of the book. Good thing there are two more volumes in the Moorhawke Trilogy to clear everything up.
Another question you may ask: Why did I not hate this book? Well, it was overwrought, but the emotions were real–unconvincing only in quantity, not quality. Likewise, even as it wallowed in minutiae through every description of the boys’ bodies and expressions and injuries and gestures (all in a way to emphasize their hotness), and in its descriptions of the girl’s feelings, the story remained unforced. Here is an author whose heart is whole and who believes in her world wholeheartedly and has thrown her whole self into it. I love that; a lot of high fantasy lacks conviction. I may be one of those people who finds emotion more potent when it’s contained in a mold of poetic restraint, but far more important that it’s there.