Title: The Poisoned Blade
Author: Kate Elliott
Genre: YA, Fantasy
Rating: ★★★☆☆ | 3.5
Poisoned Blade follows the Fives champion Jessamy in the immediate aftermath of the victory that has embroiled herself and Prince Kal in the deadly games of the palace. Though she’s won glory and fame, Jes stands on treacherous ground—her family is in constant danger from Lord Gargaron, she’s being jerked around as a tool and expected to keep up her winning streak, Kal won’t speak to her, and the kingdom is on the verge of war—a war Jes is sure involves Menoë, Kal’s sister and her father’s new wife.
I don’t know if you guys remember my review of The Court of Fives last August, but I really, really enjoyed it, I might have even given it a 5/5. But I talked with Admin R after to dish the #hotgoss about the novel, and she liked it significantly less than I did, even though she’s arguably the bigger Kate Elliott fan. At the time, I think she’d mentioned something about the lack of subtlety. I disagreed then, but now, I fully see it.
The beginning of the novel, up to about more than halfway through, was really clunky and uneven. Perhaps it’s because it’s just been too long since I read the first novel, and it took me a while to get back into the character dynamics, but many of the interactions, especially the ones between Jes and Ro, felt incredibly forced & without any real chemistry.
I overlooked a lot of the clunkiness in pacing of the first novel because it was Elliott’s first YA, and YA tends to be paced a lot more quickly than adult novels (and Elliott’s pacing is slow even for adult novels, but it never felt uninteresting or uneven before), but as this was her second novel, and as she was coming into it with more experience, I did expect a smoother ride.
The overall jaggedness of a large portion of the novel was kind of a nasty shock, especially character-wise, because I’m usually drawn to people like Ro—the witty, libertine poet who dreams of liberation. But Ro—and indeed, much of this book—ultimately felt dissatisfying, because they felt quite hollow.
Take the worldbuilding, for example—much of it was bluntly stated in ways that reminded me, quite abruptly, that I was reading something and not experiencing it, that I was reading about an imagined world rather than allowing me to lose myself in its details. It never felt real, because I prefer my worldbuilding to be softer and subtler, dealing more in suggestion and habit and less in being Told and being Explained to. I kept feeling like I was being force-fed worldbuilding, and the overall effect was to make it feel less inhabited.
Also, the completely unnecessary, majorly extra, absolutely predictable, and also absolutely uninspiring love triangle.
Don’t get me wrong—there’s still a lot I enjoyed about the novel. Kal is, for one, a lot more engaging than he was in the first book, and I liked that Jes stepped out of her self-absorption to see her siblings for who they are: Amaya is whiny and spoiled, but she’s also a capable young girl who knows how to manipulate people’s perceptions of her. Bettany’s hatred for their father blows up in a particularly disastrous way, and even Maraya has her own preoccupations. I also felt like Jes’ biracial identity was well-portrayed—her own self-doubt, and the unjust accusations levelled at her by both her people, and the pressure that outside invasion and internal oppression places on her and her sense of self felt very carefully considered.
I did really like the last third of the novel—the realization on Jes and Kal’s part that there’s not much they can do to escape the political machinations they’ve become embroiled in, and their small acts of agency within that bind were really engaging, and the reveal of Menoë was done in a really empathetic way that simultaneously revealed Jes’ own shortcomings and biases.
Overall, I was relatively disappointed with this novel, but it serves as a good transitional novel for both the series and for Jes as they move from the individual into the state. It was still enjoyable, and if I was disappointed it’s because the rest of Elliott’s oeuvre is so formidable that this book is flimsy by comparison.
Also, boring love triangle. (Boo hiss.)