Book: This Poison Heart
Author: Kalynn Bayron
Narrator: Jordan Cobb
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Briseis and her mums talk about Marie.
Content Warnings: Self-injury, death of a parent, murder & attempted murder, poisoning, blood, violence, death, body horror, gore, injury/injury detail, medical content, grief, hate crime, child abuse, child death, confinement, torture, kidnapping, stalking, toxic friendship, gun violence
So This Poison Heart was one of several books I was approved for on Netgalley last year that I ended up putting on pause because I just wasn’t in the mood for e-books. However since I really loved Cinderella Is Dead, I really wanted to come back and try and finish This Poison Heart when I was feeling more in the mood, so I decided to try it on audio this year. Unfortunately I didn’t love it as much as Cinderella Is Dead, the pacing was really off, it was an incredibly slow starter and really rushed at the end. It also felt like it was a standalone that had been stretched into a duology where there wasn’t really enough material to warrant that. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
Briseis has a gift: she can grow plants from tiny seeds to rich blooms with a single touch.
When Briseis’s aunt dies and wills her a dilapidated estate in rural New York, Bri and her parents decide to leave Brooklyn behind for the summer. Hopefully there, surrounded by plants and flowers, Bri will finally learn to control her gift. But their new home is sinister in ways they could never have imagined – it comes with a specific set of instructions, an old-school apothecary, and a walled garden filled with the deadliest botanicals in the world that can only be entered by those who share Bri’s unique family lineage.
When strangers begin to arrive on their doorstep, asking for tinctures and elixirs, Bri learns she has a surprising talent for creating them. One of the visitors is Marie, a mysterious young woman who Bri befriends, only to find that Marie is keeping dark secrets about the history of the estate and its surrounding community. There is more to Bri’s sudden inheritance than she could have imagined, and she is determined to uncover it… until a nefarious group comes after her in search of a rare and dangerous immortality elixir. Up against a centuries-old curse and the deadliest plant on earth, Bri must harness her gift to protect herself and her family.
My biggest problem with this book, as I mentioned up the top of the review was the pacing. It was incredibly slow to get going, it was only about halfway through the book that it felt like the book was actually going somewhere! Equally, the climax felt so rushed that it was hard to keep up and the “twist” seemed to come out of nowhere, it didn’t seem pre-planned at all from what had happened up to that point in the book. I always hate when relatively short books (this one is under 400 pages) feel longer than they are, & that was definitely the case here.
I did love the concept, the mashup of the Secret Garden retelling and all the Greek mythology influences was really cool, but it did feel like the author had a few too many ideas and not a direct path of what she wanted to do with all of them. Briseis’s powers were really cool, but I wish they’d been explained slightly better.
This is another book with the whole 17 year old with hundreds of years old immortal love interest trope and I really wish this one would be retired already! Straight couple, gay couple, either way having a 300+ year old interested in a teenager is super gross. I also didn’t feel like Marie and Briseis had much chemistry, so even if I hadn’t been grossed out by the age gap, I still wouldn’t have found them a couple to root for. It also felt slightly creepy that Marie would be interested in Bri after it being heavily implied that she had a relationship with one of her long dead relatives!
It was so cool to see LGBTQ+ parents in this book, I can’t think of that many books that I’ve read with older characters in same-sex relationships. Bri’s mums were actually my favourite characters in the book, they were so much fun to read and I loved seeing such a supportive romantic relationship between two women. I loved that Bri had such a loving, supportive family and the family aspect was one of my favourite parts of the book.
Speaking of the characters, aside from Bri’s mums, they all felt kind of flat to me. Briseis herself didn’t feel like a particularly driving force in the book, as a protagonist, she came across as kind of passive to me, like things just happened to her, rather than her making decisions that drove the plot forward. She was also very naive and I got kind of frustrated by some of the really stupid decisions she made, like why would you bring your friends who you know are not immune to poison in the same way you are, to a poison garden? Also how do you just accept that a long lost relative left you an estate in the middle of nowhere without checking it’s legit? Granted that one is probably more on her mums than her, but it seemed weird that after only a little suspicion, they didn’t look into it further. I had the same problem in Cinderella Is Dead, so maybe character development just isn’t Bayron’s forte.
Also in a town as small as Rhinebeck seems to be, with so many families that have been there for generations, you would assume someone would notice that this teenager had been there for years and never looked older than 17? In a bigger city, sure, but Bayron made it seem like everyone in Rhinebeck knew each other so it seemed odd that no one would have had suspicions about Marie.
I would have liked more fantasy, for a book that is supposedly a fantasy, it felt far more like a contemporary with a spattering of fantastical elements, which is fine for people who like that, but I definitely prefer much heavier fantasy elements in my fantasy books.
I loved the Black and LGBTQ+ rep, basically all of the major characters in this book were Black, which I thought was really cool. However there is an event at the end that utilises the “bury your gays” trope, which I wasn’t massively thrilled by, and seemed highly unnecessary, as it seemed to largely be to force a sequel rather than being important for the narrative.
The handling of adoption throughout seemed really thoughtful (though I am not adopted, so obviously would refer to adopted reviewers thoughts on this!), I loved how Bri was encouraged by her mums to explore her heritage without it being shown as a slight on her feelings towards them as her parents.
I also really liked the narration, Jordan Cobb narrated Karina’s POV for both ASOWAR books and I enjoyed her narration just as much here as I did in those.
I was slightly disappointed by the reveal of the villains, I didn’t think they had been built up enough as villains and it seemed to come out of left field. I think if the twist that revealed them had been built up more, it might of worked, but as it was, it felt like the author had just plucked two characters out of thin air and was like “yup, they’ll be the villains” without majorly fleshing out their motives.
It was nice that the m/f relationship in this one was completely platonic, I would love to see more of those in books!
I was also massively confused that Bri would be so willing to share her powers with her new friends in Rhinebeck, when it had not gone that well when she’d shared them in Brooklyn. She’s barely known this people that long before she’s happily spilling all her secrets to them. The whole approach to her powers seems to be a complete 180 from Brooklyn to Rhinebeck and though I get that people in Rhinebeck may be more accepting because they knew her birth family, it seems odd that both Bri and her mums are willing for her to be so cavalier with showing her powers when they move, especially given that they live in such a small place and people talk! Considering that her mums are shown to be so protective of her, it was strange that they were so willing to just let her go around and do whatever she wanted in Rhinebeck.
Some of the dialogue felt quite cringey and like the author was trying too hard to be “down with the kids”. The writing was fine, but it did feel more like a book written for a middle grade audience than a YA one for me.
The atmosphere and setting were really well done though, I loved the old creepy house and walled garden, and the small town vibes, the setting in this one definitely felt more alive than the one in Cinderella Is Dead.
Some of the chapters were a little overly long, especially for such a short book.
I also had lots of problems with the ending. Without going into too much detail so that I avoid spoilers, there are certain events in the ending that felt very deus-ex machinery and a lot of it relied on the protagonist being too stupid to work out that she was in a room full of poisonous plant specimens and therefore could probably have resolved her situation more easily than she did. The whole plot relies a lot on conveniences but this was especially true of the ending. The events of the last chapter definitely felt like they were just there to force a sequel, when I actually felt like up until that point, this book would have worked fine as a standalone. Having a sequel just feels like the author is stretching the story out too much.
Overall, I was kind of disappointed in this book. Though enjoyed the creepy atmosphere, the Black and LGBTQ+ representation, and thought the concept was cool, the plot was weak for me, it was slow paced and the main character was too passive. I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel, as though I was intrigued by the cliffhanger ending, I didn’t love any of the characters enough (aside from Bri’s mums) to want to follow more of them, and I wouldn’t want to wade through another 200+ pages of not much happening to get to the exciting bit again.
My Rating: 3/5
My next review will be of my current audiobook read, Resistance Women by Jennifer Chiaverini, which should be up sometime in February, I have about seven hours (ish) of the audiobook left.