Fantasy (with a historical ‘flavour’ - although not sure if that word is fitting given the content of poison within this book!)
Set within two mythical shires of England, this is a very dark, almost Gothic, novel.
Lavinia Maud is a most unusual young woman; her father had been the local magistrate and, had she been born a man, she would have inherited his post. But she wasn't and the only path before her would be either marriage or the veil. But instead she opts for her preferred profession: a poisoner.
And she's good at it. Many have suffered horrible deaths at her hands. She craves two things: rich and powerful clients and a fellowship from the (necessarily) secretive Poisoner's Guild. Together with brother and sister Edmund and Aselin Gavrell she will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. Edmund keeps house for the three of them and Aselin is Lavinia's apprentice and protégée; Edmund resents Aselin's involvement but she thrives on it! A summons from a local Baron and it looks like Lavinia's career is going to take off.
The descriptions of poison making are fascinating (I shall be employing a food taster from now on) and Lavinia's way of choosing test subjects for every new toxin borders on the callous. As does her obvious delight at every success, her pride in her achievements and the thrill of the kill that drives her on - although it is not a sexual thrill. Yet, after each, 'hit' she seeks absolution from her local priest, believing she will be ultimately redeemed. The story twists and turns from success to failure and back again and with it, so do your feelings for Lavinia: it's nothing personal, just business.
There were a few typos in my version and some phrases that to me simply did not read right, however, a note at the back of the book explains that this was deliberate. I didn't like the made up names of the shires – truer locations and titles, I felt, would have been better.
Although written in the past tense, the book suddenly switches to the present tense for the last chapter. Not only is this deliberate but, for me, provides one of the most dramatic endings I have ever read.
Highly recommended – especially if you like a bit of herbal spice in your life!
© Richard Tearle
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