Teaching has been eating both my time and my brain lately; hence the lack of new posts from me. Luckily, I have a few things in reserve, so here's one I made earlier: a review I wrote for SFX magazine of The Poison Throne (2010), book one in Celine Kiernan's Moorehawke Trilogy.
(Yes, it has a talking cat, but don't let that put you off!)
First published in 2008 by Dublin-based O’Brien Press, Celine Kiernan’s debut young-adult fantasy comes to a wider audience courtesy of Orbit. It fully deserves the exposure. Told with great assurance and attention to detail, this is an exciting, fast-paced story – almost astonishingly so, given that it all takes place in and around a single royal palace.
After a five-year absence on royal business, 15-year-old Wynter and her father Lorcan return to their homeland, in the south of an alternate medieval Europe where ghosts walk and cats talk. But Wynter’s happy childhood memories of the place contrast sharply with the oppressive reality that greets her: a paranoid king, a missing heir, and a precarious power shift. Wynter’s awareness of the gulf between past and present is a neat device that illuminates both character and world without need for heavy-handed infodumps.
This is very much a story anchored in the fears, loyalties and vulnerabilities of its sympathetically drawn characters. It makes for an absorbing read but at times an overwrought one, as Kiernan dials up the emotional intensity at every opportunity. Although the royal court is supposed to be so cutthroat that you must guard your every glance, for fear of what you might reveal to enemies, the main characters are all surprisingly demonstrative. Not a chapter goes by without at least one yelling, weeping, throwing punches, or having abrupt collapses under the weight of emotional tension.
There is a danger of it becoming one-note – every event is a crisis, every conversation filled with handwringing – but Kiernan’s plotting keeps the pages turning nicely. In quieter moments, she shows an acute sense of how to build tension, and when to twist the knife.