(Note: I received an advanced digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)
Four words: The Carnival of Stars. The ultimate setting of Helena Rookwood’s The Prince and the Poisoner is unique, wonderful, and begs to be explored almost as much as Hogwarts or Lothlorien. The morning after I finished this first installment of the Carnival of the Fae series, I woke up thinking I couldn’t wait to get back to the Carnival of Stars and see what happens next. I was genuinely disappointed when I remembered I’d finished The Prince and the Poisoner the night before.
In addition to those four words, this book has four great strengths: it’s heroine (Lira), it’s near-constant plot developments (action and twists!), it’s realistic writing (the characters’ motives and dialogue), and its imagination (gorgeous, magical settings). Those last two sound like contradictions, but Rookwood proves you really can have both.
When one character protests something, or offers troubling new information to another, the listener is quicker to believe it’s a lie than almost instantly believing what they don’t want to hear or accepting information from someone they don’t trust. And the royals in the story are neither shining heroes nor ruthless tyrants (with one possible exception, though we see very little of that particular king).
The story begins with Lira in a small traveling circus. Everyone in the circus has a specialty, and Lira’s is that she makes potions according to the specific ways her father taught her. When she gets a headache at the back of her head, she knows that her potions will work. And work they do, better than anyone else’s. As Lira steals and scrapes to save money to flee the circus’s abusive masters, her talent draws the attention of a mysterious man on horseback, who whisks her away on a journey to the Carnival of Stars one night.
But her escape comes with a surprising catch: Lira must poison a princess and thereby frame a kingdom. She then must balance the enormity of that task with her need to get away from her old circus, which the mysterious man threatens to return her to if she doesn’t fulfill her end of the bargain. But this is Lira, which means there is plenty of unexpected adventure, a little romance, a helping of magic and very little navel-gazing involved.
Lira is by far this story’s greatest asset (that’s what you’d want out of a MC, right?). She is both different and well-rounded, a secretive, bold, brassy, bratty, proud, secure, confident, flirtatious, headstrong, resilient, “preening,” braggadocios, and all-out marvelous female lead. If the necessary quality of a main character is that they would want to tell their own story, Lira does it with a lot of flare and no self-pity. She also has realistic motivations.
Lira rarely has a woe-is-me moment throughout the story, and when she does it’s almost always short-lived. She tends to make brave and sometimes surprising choices, and it’s not because of generic heroism: her motives are self-preservation and unwavering belief in her own talents, and a lot of that comes from her difficult (but never overly dramatized) backstory. It doesn’t mean she’s always likable, but she is never boring, either. It was frankly refreshing to find a heroine who never doubts her abilities and actively promotes them.
All in all, The Prince and the Poisoner makes for one heck of a circus.