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The Poison Throne: Moorehawke Trilogy, Book 1 by Celine Kiernan
Review by Liz de Jager
Orbit Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781841498218
Date: 01 April 2010 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

Originally published by the O'Brien Press in Ireland, Celine Kiernan's début fantasy series was snapped up by Orbit, offering Kiernan the kind of worldwide distribution and market penetration that will be the envy of other first time authors. Essentially a medieval tale of courtly intrigue, its female teenage protagonist, Wynter Moorehawke (for whom the trilogy is named) is the role model for the target demographic - interestingly publishers in other territories are selling this as YA novel. Released this month in mass market paperback.

"Young Wynter Moorehawke returns to court with her dying father. But her old home is cloaked in fear.. Once benevolent King Jonathon is now a violent despot, terrorising his people while his son Alberon plots a coup from exile. Then darkness spreads as the King appoints Alberon's half-brother Razi as heir. Wynter must watch her friend obey his father's untenable commands, as those they love are held to ransom. And at the heart of matters lies a war machine so lethal that none dare speak of it. The kingdom would belong to its master, yet the consequences of using it are too dire to consider. But temptation has ever been the enemy of reason."

I am very excited to review Irish novelist Celine Kiernan's début novel The Poison Throne for SFRevu because so much good fantasy has come from abroad these past few years that receiving something as new and thrilling as this from a 'local' author, has me jumping up and down with excitement!

Firstly, I have to admit that I was genuinely surprised by Ms. Kiernan's writing style. It is eloquent, sharp and lush. We follow the main character around right up close, experiencing her innermost thoughts and feelings - in fact, Wynter's point of view is the only one we see, though the cast of supporting characters are all fleshed out well enough. Indeed they really were crying out for more attention, as their stories were as equally interesting as Wynter's.

The Poison Throne is a set piece in characterisation. At the risk of sounding negative, very little happens in The Poison Throne. There is very little action – or rather, action in the way we've become used to it - mad capers, sword fights, verbal altercations with enemies, big battle scenes and suchlike. Instead Kiernan focusses her narrative the things that make King Jonathan's court tick, the minutiae and the nuances. Here is a court walking the edge of a blade, one encircling a king who seems to be going insane. He's banished his oldest son, Alberon, from the court and in his stead, he's installed his bastard son, Razi, once equally loved and honoured, but now seen by the populace as someone to hate, a usurper. What none but his closest friends realise is that Razi is being held hostage and is thus an unwilling accomplice in this farce. Political intrigue is the order of the day and with superstition running rife, gone is the tolerance between different religions.

Setting The Poison Throne in an alternate, fantastical, magical, medieval Europe gives the author the opportunity to play with various nationalities and with our own preconceptions. Kiernan peoples her novel with races we recognise and place names very familiar. It's a clever trick of world building and something I enjoyed.

But, back to our main character, Wynter Moorehawke. Following a five year absence in the barbarian north, she returns to her beloved homeland, in the company of her sick father. They want nothing more than to be shown to their quarters and for Wynter's father, Lorcan, to return to full health. But King Jonathan's kingdom is no longer the idyllic place of Wynter's childhood and we are made aware of this within the first few pages of the novel. This bit of foreshadowing only darkens as the story develops and we realise that a wrong move by Wynter or any of those she holds dear, could mean their deaths.

She is soon put in the picture by Razi and his friend Christopher and through Wynter we experience the oppressiveness of the castle, the underlying currents of fear and hatred, as no one is sure who to trust.

Kiernan offers the reader a complex world without ever overwhelming us with too much politics. Instead of turning Jonathan into an brutish oaf who rules from afar, we are shown a deeply personal and tragic side to this king - a man struggling to hold onto both his kingdom and his sanity. Great kudos to the author for giving us an antagonist who is portrayed as human and broken. I was set to hate this mean character but it's so not easy to dislike someone after you have seen them bare their soul.

This however does not mean that Jonathan is a cuddly person with only occasional spouts of nastiness. This guy is bad. But this is for a reason - a deeply twisted and nasty reason. And becuase Wynter is witness, at least in part (due to her overhearing Jonathan's confession to her fading father) we realise the danger she finds herself in. We leave the novel at a very satisfying point – not a cliffhanger exactly, but somewhere between that and a promise of returning to something darker and meaner.

It's not Lynch and it's not Abercrombie. Instead The Poisoned Throne is a slowly building, character driven piece - one set to surprise a lot of readers by the sheer force of its storytelling and the promise of its scope. I for one am looking forward to the next two novels, which I understand will expand on the supporting characters and the surrounding world.

I'm a happy little reviewer!

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