Celine Kiernan – The Poison Throne

This is somewhat of an odd review as I’ve first read books 2 and 3 of the Moorehawk Trilogy by Celine Kiernan before I got my hands on book 1, The Poison Throne (2008). In the past I used to start in later books more often when no others were available (at my library) and pick it up later if they proved to be good. These days I don’t have a library account (for my own safety and because I read preferably read books in the original language (as mine is Dutch) to prevent flawed opinions due to poor translation (unfortunately more often since fantasy got more mainstream over a decade ago)), so it is more risky as I have to spend money to read. That does make me more critical towards what I read, so that I don’t read too much crap.

Anyways, the point I want to make is that based on books 2 and 3 of the trilogy (The Crowded Shadows and The Rebel Prince) I decided to buy book 1 as well. My opinion was not particularly positive, but I was missing on certain background and details which were only glanced over in the later books and I assumed that Kiernan was nice enough not to repeat everything again and only remarked on some necessary references. I was thus interested in what had happened before to know what had led to the story as told in the later books. As such, this review will be using the later books in some ways as a point of reference and this review will also cover the whole trilogy as a whole. That doesn’t mean I will be spoiling, only preparing for what lies ahead.

So what about my assumption? It turned out to be completely wrong. Kiernan did not exclude unnecessary references as there were none. People sometimes complain about infodumping when an author tries to set up his world and explain how it works and what is going on. No chance for that here as the first novel is pretty much devoid of infodumping. There is hardly any background information at all. What is the life story of the main characters? How did they get together? What did they do before they joined together? Of course this doesn’t all have to be disclosed in the first book. It is a useful element to get the reader to read the next installment. Nevertheless one does expect to learn something substantial in the beginning. There is very little. Most is only superficial. Sadly enough even in the later books only one of the main characters gets serious disclosure. I hoped for the others to have gotten theirs already in book 1. Alas.

Well okay, that was not very positive. So lets look at the plot. Lack of plot development was one of my complaints of the other novels. Not that nothing happened. I got through the pages easily enough. It was just that a lot of little things were happening that were of no serious importance to the greater story and scenes were extended to their extreme before the story got on. Now what can I say about the plot of The Poison Throne. After a dramatic start it quickly slumps down. Then a lot of little mainly inconsequential things happen before the end comes and finally some things happen again with not that much impact. So the actual plot development could have been put in a quarter or perhaps a fifth of the novel. To be exact, if I cut out only the necessary plot development from all the three novels I would have just a medium-sized single novel.

In a nutshell The Poison Throne is a stunning novel, literally. It takes place in a single location with two-thirds of it focused in two rooms. There are five main characters of which one does not get much attention. There are a few side characters who however get very little attention time. Kiernan basically spends all of her time on the interaction between the four main characters. So what does she spend all those pages on? Very extensive melodramatic scenes. In my reviews of books 2 and 3 I said that she extended her scenes and the drama to the limit, although with great strength. Alas in book 1 she was still finding her way. The scenes are too long and the drama too cheap. Besides that the scenes became rather repetitive. Because of the lack of plot development the situation of the main characters barely changed so the scenes between them didn’t change either.

Keeping the majority of the scenes in the two rooms was an odd choice. The story is told from the viewpoint of one main character. She was basically shut off from the outer world and got only little information from the outside world. The few times she did go to someplace interesting, Kiernan in most cases skipped those events. We mainly got the “outside” scenes that would give no new insights.

If I had read this novel first instead of the second one I would not have continued. I would have considered it long-winded, boring and providing too few things that grabbed my interest. There is very little world-building in this supposedly fantasy story. It takes place in a unnamed castle in an unnamed kingdom in an only vaguely mentioned outside world. The fantastic elements are very minor and rather unsubstantial towards the main plot.

My strange conclusion now is that the second book of the trilogy is the best. It is the most entertaining with the strongest dramatic scenes. The third book has the most plot development, if only at the end and too much rushed and not really making much sense. The Poison Throne does not have that problem. The plot itself, although containing too much inconsequential elements, is okay, were it not that the main plot of the trilogy is a problem in itself. Kiernan has a keen eye for details, especially for creating dramatic scenes based on character interactions. What I see is an idea for a plot which results in a sequence of those scenes. Then the problem comes. What happens outside those scenes? Some she manages to connect together in a reasonable way. The rest she decides to simply ignore.

Kiernan certainly has talent and can write well. Telling a good story is a different thing. This plot failed, simply said. She should have aimed to write the tale in the mold of Mervyn Peake‘s Gormenghast Trilogy. That also has few fantastic elements, a vague world-setting, a single location and a great focus on characters. In such an environment many little things do play their part and are not bothered by a so-called greater plot.

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