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Book: “The Poison Season” by Mara Rutherford
Publishing Info: Inkyard Press, December 2022
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+
Book Description: Leelo has spent her entire life on Endla, coexisting with the bloodthirsty Forest and respecting the poisonous lake that protects her island from outsiders who seek to destroy it. But as much as Leelo cares for her community, she struggles to accept that her younger brother will be exiled by his next birthday, unless he gains the magic of enchanted song so vital to Endla.
When Leelo sees a young outsider on the verge of drowning in the lake, she knows exactly what she’s supposed to do. But in a moment that will change everything, Leelo betrays her family, her best friend, and Endla by making an unthinkable choice.
Discovery could lead to devastating consequences for both Leelo and the outsider, Jaren, but as they grow closer, Leelo realizes that not all danger comes from beyond the lake—and they can only survive if Leelo is willing to question the very fabric of her society, her people, and herself.
Review: This is one of the few new YA fantasy books coming out this month, so of course I have to read it. But I’d like to think that I would have picked it up either way. For one thing, the cover is eye-catching. For another, I do love stories about creepy woods. Add a creepy lake and you’re really humming!
Leelo has grown up knowing one thing: that it is only by the protection of a bloodthirsty forest and a deadly lake that her people have found a refuge in a world that fears their song magic. With this protection comes steep cost, however. Those born on the island who do not have the power of song must be banished, for their own, and their community’s, protection. With this cruel fate coming for her own young brother, Leelo is forced to confront the harsh realities of her world. And when she meets a foreigner who accidentally finds his way onto her island, her questions condense into one, life-changing choice.
While much of this book will feel familiar to readers of YA fantasy, there was a lot a lot to enjoy, as well. The setting itself is very thoroughly described, something that is crucial given the role that both the poisonous lake and the magical forest play in the story and Leelo’s people’s culture and history. Early on, we have a few scenes that depict the harsh nature of this world, and its people. It’s difficult to imagine the circumstances that would lead to this type of society forming, but the book does a decent job of creating a plausible backstory for it all. Once the brutality of nature has been established, the book switches to what turns out to be its primary focus: the nature of family, loyalty, and the sometimes unhealthy versions of love that can be found therein.
I was particularly interested in these themes as they specifically dealt with the relationships between sisters (or cousins who practically grew up as sisters). Leelo grows up in a family group comprised of her mother and her brother, as well as her aunt (her mother’s sister) and her female cousin. It’s immediately clear that not all is well with this family. Indeed, much of the story is about all of the family trauma that makes up this small group, both traumas from the past that are still impacting these characters today, and the current events, such as Leelo’s brother’s imminent banishment. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about the past events that shaped these women’s stories. It’s an excellent exploration of the dark sides of love and family devotion. Love doesn’t conquer all, and indeed, can sometimes make people do terrible things.
For me, this was the heart of the story. As such, I was much less invested in the romance. It was fine, all things considered. In fact, given the structure of the book, I’m impressed at how well the love story avoided the instalove snake pit. But because I was so much more invested in Leelo and her family’s story, I did find myself less interested in Jaren’s chapters. They weren’t bad, by any means. Just not where my focus tended to linger.
As far as the plot and story, this book is fairly predictable. Most people can likely guess most of the late-game reveals. This was especially true of the secrets regarding the Endlan’s history and the nature of the forest and lake. There were a few more twists and turns as far as the family secrets and outcomes, which is probably for the best as these aspects were also the strongest of the book overall. But even here, nothing was incredibly shocking. But that’s also ok! I don’t need to be surprised and shocked with every book I read. Instead, this book accomplishes what it sets out to do: provide an enjoyable YA fantasy story that focuses on the darkness that can be found at the heart of people, even those who may love us most.
Rating 8: Atmospheric and lush, this story weaves its themes of family trauma and darkness through the lens of a bloodthirsty forest and poisonous lake. Dark in all of the best ways!