Book: “A Poison Dark and Drowning” by Jessica Cluess
Publishing Info: Random House Books for Young Readers, September 2017
Where Did I Get this Book: Blogging for Books
Book Description: Henrietta doesn’t need a prophecy to know that she’s in danger. She came to London to be named the chosen one, the first female sorcerer in centuries, the one who would defeat the bloodthirsty Ancients. Instead, she discovered a city ruled by secrets. And the biggest secret of all: Henrietta is not the chosen one.
Still, she must play the role in order to keep herself and Rook, her best friend and childhood love, safe. But can she truly save him? The poison in Rook’s system is transforming him into something monstrous as he begins to master dark powers of his own.
So when Henrietta finds a clue to the Ancients’ past that could turn the tide of the war, she persuades Blackwood, the mysterious Earl of Sorrow-Fell, to travel up the coast to seek out strange new weapons. And Magnus, the brave, reckless flirt who wants to win back her favor, is assigned to their mission. Together, they will face monsters, meet powerful new allies, and uncover the most devastating weapon of all: the truth.
Previously Reviewed: “A Shadow Bright and Burning”
Review: I wasn’t a huge fan of “A Shadow Bright and Burning.” It wasn’t the worst thing ever, but I had a few distinct issues with it and, perhaps worse, after reading it, I pretty much forgot about it and the fact that it was the first in a trilogy. But then “A Poison Dark and Drowning” popped up on Blogging for Books, and I thought “why the heck not?” I also requested an audiobook version from the library, since we all know how I am about needing my multiple formats. And, in this case particularly, I’m very glad I did! While this wasn’t a perfect book and several of my concerns from the first came to fruition here, this sequel is definitely an improvement on the first, increasing the stakes, expanding the setting, and, for the audiobook, read by an awesome narrator who added much needed depth and tone to Henrietta’s voice.
Opening shortly after the end of the first novel, Henrietta has settled into her new life as a sorcerer. As well as she can, that is, knowing that she is being asked to live a lie and pose as the prophesied savior. London is in a precarious point in the war against the almost all-powerful Ancients, lead by the horrifying Skinned Man, Relim. Yes, at the end of the last book they struck a crucial blow, killing one of the Ancients for the first time ever. But the protective ward around the city fell as a result, and now they all wait, exposed, wondering why Relim hasn’t yet struck. Throughout all of this, Henrietta’s focus is also drawn more close to home as her childhood friend and love, Rook, begins to succumb to the darkness that has poisoned him after being attacked in the last book.
It is clear that Cluess felt much more freed up, as it were, when she wrote this novel. It’s not even that surprising. She had a lot of ground to cover in the first book including world-building, the mysteries surrounding Henrietta’s family, and setting up not one but two magic systems. Here, with all of these factors already in place, it feels like the author was finally able to open her wings. The pacing of this story was much more active, and the magical elements fit more naturally into the storyline. Henrietta’s tale takes outside of London, onto the treacherous ocean, ruled by a monstrous spider Ancient, to a misty moor hiding a monster hunter’s house, down into the land of fairy that is ruled by the capricious and cruel Queen Mab, and through many different battles, with the Ancients themselves, as well as their creepy familiars.
Henrietta herself is also more fully fleshed out in this novel. While she still had a tendency to withhold information and lie more often than is likely wise (a pet peeve of mine with YA heroines), she’s also more sure of herself and of her own powers, specifically her magicians magic. She also barely avoids the typical “martyr complex” also all too familiar for YA heroines, and still maintains a practical head on her shoulder, even when atrocities are being committed simply to lure her out. Part of my increased appreciated for Henrietta is due to the clever and nuanced voice that the audiobook narrator managed to give the character. There were moments where she added tones of humor, exasperation, and sense to dialogue that may have read more melodramatic simply from the page. It’s one of those tricky things, in cases like this. I honestly can’t tell how much of my improved attitude towards this character comes from the way she was written (was the characterization actually stronger?) or from simply enjoying this narrator quite a bit (would I have appreciated the first book’s version of Henrietta more had I listened to the audiobook version of that one too?). Ultimately, I do think that Henrietta’s storyline was much stronger in this book, largely freed from the angst and drama from the first book.
We also delved more deeply into Henrietta’s history and into the mystery surrounding how and why the portal that let the Ancients into this world was open 17 years ago. While I found some of this to be fairly predictable, there were enough twists and turns added to still make the reveals feel new and interesting.
The stakes were also much higher in this story. The ward is down, London is in danger, and the odds are not good. And these things aren’t simply left as passive threats. There are battles, soldiers die. Towns are destroyed, and civilians suffer. Beyond this, there are consequences, real and terrible consequences, to the choices that characters make. I was surprised and impressed by the author’s commitment to “going there” with some of these decisions. This added seriousness of tone did a lot to balance out my major, and predictable criticism of this book: a love square.
As I mentioned in my review of the first book, the story is set up with Henrietta surrounded by a bunch of young men, all potential love interests in some manner or another. In that book we had Rook, Henrietta’s childhood love, and Magnus, the charming rogue. The story ended with Henrietta choosing Rook, in no little part due to the fact that Magnus turned into a jerk who was not only already engaged but let loose that he thought Henrietta was beneath him. But here, not only does Magnus get freed back up, breaking his engagement, but somehow is retconned into being much more regretful about his previous behavior. Henrietta’s heart is with Rook, however his descent into darkness and the unknowable future make their relationship challenge. And now we also add in Blackwood, the dark and brooding magicain who was slow to warn to Henrietta in the first book, but looks to be being slotted into a sort of “Mr. Darcy/bad boy” role where he’s made better by his close friendship with Henrietta, a relationship that, at first only on his side but slowly on hers as well, begins to blossom into something more.
The worst part of all of this was the fact that the book was clipping along until about halfway through with barely a reference to any romance, other than a few thoughts and concerns shot Rook’s way. And then BAM, right in the middle of the story and the action the brakes were thrown on and the story became stuck in love-triangle/square-melodrama. Thankfully, the story did kick back into the action eventually, but there were times in the middle of this section where I almost put the book down. I really don’t understand why this is considered to be necessary in YA fantasy. The story was so strong without it, and sure a dash of romance is often appreciated, but tonally, the book takes a massive swerve when it suddenly commits so much page time to these silly romantic flounderings. And ultimately, this middle section soured my opinion on all the characters involved: Henrietta, Blackwood, Rook. Magnus, bizarrely, probably comes out of all of this in the best light. And in the end, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about where things stand. Who exactly am I supposed to be rooting for? The fact that I can’t tell is the biggest problem, and ultimately, I wish Henrietta would just kick them all to the side and go have awesome adventures with Maria.
To end on a good note, Maria, a Scottish witch they pick up on their travels, was probably my favorite part of this story. Not only does she add the much needed female companion to Henrietta, but as a character herself, she’s excellent. Through her we see the horrors that the witches have suffered, alongside the magicians who we’ve heard about through Henrietta’s story, during the systematized persecution put in place after the portal was opened years ago. She has a powerful magical ability, and she wields an ax. And, best of all, the story sets her up in a pivotal role going forward. Again, Henrietta, girl, throw those boys away and hang with Maria. Rook = no personality. Blackwood = kind of a jerk with controlling tendencies. Magnus = already showed his cards as a player. Maria = besty who is the only one Henrietta is comfortable being completely truthful with. Seems pretty obvious to me.
Ultimately, I did enjoy “A Poison Dark and Drowning” more than the first. The story is given increased depth and danger, and while some of my predictions regarding the plethora of love interests did come to icky fruition, the added character of Maria makes up for it. If you like audiobooks, I do recommend checking out that version of the story as some of my increased opinion could be due to the narrator’s skillful reading.
Rating 7: Full of action and dark twisty magic, if unfortunately interrupted by silly romantic entanglements at times.
“A Poison Dark and Drowning” is fairly new and isn’t on any very relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Victorian YA Novels.”
Find “A Poison Dark and Drowning” at your library using WorldCat.