Celine Kiernan’s THE POISON THRONE is a novel about fifteen-year-old Wynter Moorehawke, an apprentice carpenter during a time equivalent to Europe’s medieval period in a land that’s never named. Her father, Lorcan, is a master carpenter and a “Protector Lord,” meaning he’s a good friend of King Jonathan but does not have lands of his own. Due to Lorcan’s relationship with the King, Wynter is friends with the King’s two sons, the illegitimate elder son, Razi, and the legitimate son and heir, Alberon.
However, all is not well in the land. King Jon has apparently gone crazy, and has started torturing people for no apparent reason. The King has also decreed that ghosts don’t exist (yet they do, in this reality), that cats can’t talk (yet they do, in this reality), and anyone who says otherwise gets killed horribly, for no apparent reason except that the King has decreed it. And worst of all, the Heir, Alberon, has escaped the King entirely and has absconded to points unknown.
Due to Alberon leaving the area, King Jon has decided that Razi, not Alberon, should be the Heir despite Razi being illegitimate and a Muslim, yet the kingdom is Christian. Razi, being no fool, does not wish to do this, as he loves his half-brother Alberon and believes Alberon should be the next King. Besides, Razi is a gifted doctor, yet won’t be able to practice if he becomes the Heir, much less eventually becomes the King. And finally, Razi knows the populace will not support him. Yet because the King has decreed it, Razi must become the Heir whether he likes it or not, and whether the unnamed kingdom likes it — or not.
Wynter comes into play because she knows Razi and Alberon very well, and she wants to support them both even though she doesn’t have any idea why any of this is happening. Razi views Wynter as a sister, which is why a love relationship between them is out. But never fear, as Razi introduces Wynter to his constant companion, the fun-loving Christopher, who’s had both of his middle fingers torn out, reason unknown (but one of the few things that cannot be laid at the feet of Bad King Jon). This introduction leads to a rather tame romance between Christopher and Wynter despite the fact that before they’re introduced, Christopher beds numerous women and couldn’t be more promiscuous if he tried, while Wynter is as virginal as they come.
The best part of THE POISON THRONE is the strong and loving relationship Wynter has with her father, Lorcan. But court changes Lorcan, mostly for the worse, and Lorcan’s ill health doesn’t help matters, either. Along the way, Wynter must help Lorcan deface some of Lorcan’s best work as the King has insisted it be done. Only after this crime against art will the King give Wynter the papers she needs to set up shop as an independent carpenter of her own. That this doesn’t really make much sense is besides the point; the King has decreed it, thus it will be done. (Which means this is a deus ex machina plot device of the first water, something Ms. Kiernan really didn’t need to resort to — but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
The pluses of THE POISON THRONE are as follows: there’s much intrigue, with a strong sense of atmosphere and place (even though the kingdom is never named). Wynter is well-drawn as a young, independent woman who wants to be optimistic even though her world is falling apart, while Razi, Christopher, and Lorcan mostly are sympathetic characters who are beset by circumstances beyond their control.
But the minuses — the plot construction being all over the place as evidenced by this whole “the King has decreed” deus ex machina nonsense, the kingdom never being named, Alberon never appearing in this novel at all, much less the King being horrible with no real reason as to why — far outweigh the pluses here.
That being said, Ms. Kiernan writes well. Parts of this novel, despite having no underlying organization, are quite readable. But ultimately, there’s no there there — it’s a book about how Wynter, despite her gifts and talents, can do nothing to affect the outcome. And as such, it’s an incredibly dystopian young adult vision that’s extremely disappointing.
My advice is to borrow THE POISON THRONE from the library if you must read it at all. Then, when it disappoints you — as it invariably will — please remember not to throw it across the room. (The librarians will thank you.)
— reviewed by Barb