Premise: Briseis has had power over plants for as long as she can remember: flowers bloom when she walks by, ivy tangles when she gets anxious, she can bring even the most shrivelled sprouts back to life with a touch, and she’s immune to poisonous weeds that should kill within minutes. It makes helping out in her mothers’ florist easy, but it’s also a struggle to keep the magic hidden. When Briseis finds out a long-lost biological relative has passed away and willed her a country house, she jumps at the opportunity to discover more about her power and her lineage, and finds herself quickly tangled in family secrets of mythological proportions.
Rainbow rep: a sapphic protagonist, a cool sapphic love interest, and the protagonist’s delightful two mothers
Content considerations: some gnarly descriptions of poison taking effect, brief discussions of systemic racism
Much of the joy of This Poison Heart is watching the mystery at its centre unfold. I like to keep these spotlight posts spoiler-free so they can intrigue and entice, so I’ll be saying very little about the deeper machinations of this book, but I do want you to know that I ate through it in two days because I got so swept up exploring this world and its secrets alongside Briseis. It’s a lot of fun, complete with spooky secret gardens, hidden compartments containing lost documents, and nefarious villains and twisty-twists. All that classic magic-adventure-mystery stuff, capping off with a glorious reveal about our protagonist’s Secret Legacy. It’s delightful to see some of these tried-and-true tropes given to a heroic Black, queer character. As author Kalynn Bayron herself discussed recently, these concepts are not “overdone” until everyone has had a turn, and there are still plenty of twists and takes on them to be tried before the well is dry.
This genre-awareness serves Bayron well: This Poison Heart has a story about stories woven into its greater adventure. While I haven’t read Bayron’s debut, Cinderella is Dead, yet, I know that novel also has a vested interest in unpacking and critiquing why certain old tales survive the way they do. Who tells them, and what is lost in the telling? The lens here is turned towards Greek mythology, a “canon” with plenty of maligned female characters that contemporary writers are attempting to bring back into a more sympathetic spotlight. But I shall say no more, no more, because, again, exploring all this alongside Briseis is half the fun.
The other genre-savvy delight comes from a Black family being at the centre of this Gothic Mansion Mystery. Briseis and her two mothers are deeply aware of the danger they could get into out in rural nowhere, and there are a few tongue-in-cheek references to horror films where gormless White suburban families naïvely stumble into terrible fates. There are magical shenanigans afoot in the old estate, and Briseis’ moms are having none of it. It’s a funny running joke, and it’s also pretty satisfying.
Briseis’ moms are the best. They are far and away the most wonderful characters in the book, and their depiction brings a lot of refreshing aspects to the story. For one, This Poison Heart has totally forgone the “I have to keep my powers a secret from my parents!” trope, and Briseis’ are aware and supportive of her plant affinity. They’re very protective of her, more concerned with her not hurting herself than with the usual cliché of keeping magic under wraps. There’s an element of that, of course, but they’re also keen to let her spread her wings and experiment with her powers once she gets to the rambling, private estate. They want their daughter to be herself, earnestly.
Briseis has a flirty and blushy relationship with Marie, a local girl also tied up in the whole magic history of the place, but it very much feels like a subplot. This is first and foremost a story about family: both Briseis’ loving relationship with her adoptive mothers, and the strange ghostly experience of learning about the legacy of her birth mother and aunts. The strong bonds between women are front and centre (to the point where Briseis’ birth father is entirely irrelevant to the plot). Briseis and her moms are able to talk openly and honestly, they say they love each other all the time, they joke and banter and tease and it feels like the dialogue of people who really, sincerely care for each other.
They are also never presented as the “lesser” parents just because Briseis is now learning about her blood lineage. Both are just as important, and the text really takes the care to show that, making this an enjoyable and earnest exploration of queer family.
This Poison Heart is part one of a duology, so be warned that it does end on a cliffhanger. Given how much of this was the unfurling mystery of the house, the magical garden, and the truth about Briseis, I wonder how the framing and tone will shift in book two. I’m certainly keen to find out. This Poison Heart is a fun, spooky, magical mystery with a balance of light moments and dark elements and a cast of loveable characters, and I’m excited to see how it grows.
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