Written By: Pella the Pilgrim
In Kalynn Bayron’s sophomore book This Poison Heart, we follow Briseis, a high school student who has an uncanny connection with nature. Botanicals not only flourish in her presence, but they quite literally also gravitate toward her.
Living in the concrete jungle known as New York City (Aye!! Where Brooklyn at?! JK I’m from Florida), allowed Briseis to conceal her abilities. Not only is the availability of plants scare, but the Brooklynites are a little too preoccupied to notice the vegetation springing to life in Briseis’s wake.
Fear not, our girl’s talents do not go to waste. Briseis’s gift is utilized in her family’s flower shop, where she can turn any corsage from a withered rose to a beautiful bloom. She can even instantly grow full flowers from a pistil. Her parents are the only ones who really know about her ability. There is an unspoken understanding with Briseis’s best friend, who pretends not to notice how Briseis affects plants.
When Briseis inherits 40 acres of land (I see what the author did there) in rural New York State, it is an option for the first time ever for her to explore life outside of New York City. The town is small, and everyone seems to know more about Briseis and the history of her birth family than she does. Oh, did I forget to mention that she is the child of a same-sex couple? Maybe I forgot to mention it, because it’s not used as a trope to be “in-vogue.” It’s not a major plot point that our protagonist has to overcome. I love that Briseis’s family is portrayed in the book the way hetero parents have been portrayed for millenia. I love intersectionality, don’t you? #HereForIt #RepresentationMatters #HappyPrideMonth.
Okay, back to the book. Letters left for Briseis lead her to believe that her deceased benefactor knew about her abilities. We journey along with Briseis as she explores the estate, her origin, and her gifts. The private property provides a safe space for Briseis, and for the first time, she doesn’t have to hide her light under a bushel (see what I did there?).
Black girl nerds run the gamut — it’s an umbrella term for Black women who don’t fit the traditional stereotype. This Poison Heart represents for so many subsects: STEM Black girl nerds, Greek mythology Black girl nerds, fantasy Black girl nerds, botanist Black girl nerds…stand up!
Now my critique of the book.
As with any good fantasy book, Bayron creates a world with detailed writing. There is an air of mystery as this magical world reveals itself. Who are these trespassers who keep showing up? Why are they here? Who can Briseis trust with her secrets? Why did the previous owners have so many poisons, and why don’t they seem to affect Briseis?
Bayron writes in an organic way (I love puns, so sue me?). What I really liked about the book was that it didn’t feel forced. There are several potentially sensitive aspects of the story (LGBT+, adoption, coming of age, gentrification, etc.), but Bayron is able to write about these topics without making it feel like an after-school special. Yes, representation matters, but I really admire the author for not merely using these subjects as plot devices.
Another sign of a good writer are distinct characters. Each character had their own personality and distinguished traits.
Unlike most quests, the objective isn’t understood right away. And we as readers get to find out what her quest is together. I really enjoyed the way the story unfolded so I won’t do any spoilers — just take it from me when I say it’s a very enjoyable read. I’ve already recommended this book to my nieces and nephews.
I was excited to find out that this book is only the first. It ends not really in a cliffhanger, but rather the ending of this book is the beginning of our hero’s quest. I’m excited for the next books in the series. I’m even going to circle back to Bayron’s highly reviewed Cinderella Is Dead.
I’m gonna be honest. Botanist is not the kind of nerd I am, so as I was reading I felt like a basic because my mind kept going back to Little Shop of Horrors. Again, I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but as Briseis comes across a mysterious and lethal plant, I kept waiting for it to say, “Feed me, Seymour.”
(Sidenote: If you don’t get the reference, 1) way to make me feel old and 2) do yourself a favor and watch this classic movie.)
As I read the afterword of the book, I found I had good reason as Bayron cited The Secret Garden and Little Shop of Horrors as influences. Great, because in the back of my mind, I was also thinking of The Secret Garden. A young girl moves to the new estate of a distant relative she has never met and starts hanging out with new friends in a secret garden. I mean, granted This Poison Heart’s secret garden is full of rare and lethal plants—oops. I said I wasn’t going to say anymore. Dang. You’re just going to have to read it yourself.
This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron was released June 29, 2021, and is available now.
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