September 08, 2016

A Little Taste of Poison

by R. J. Anderson
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
352 pp.
Ages 10+
September 2016

Move over Harry Potter (well, J. K. Rowling has sort of taken care of that now) because there's a new magic in town and Isaveth Breck, a Moshite girl from a commoner's family, is its champion.  If you've read Book 1 in this new middle-grade series by R. J. Anderson (and you should have!), A Pocket Full of Murder (Atheneum, 2015), you already know about this young girl whose father, a stonemason, was arrested for the murder by Common Magic, not by Sagery the magic of the nobles, of the head of Tarreton College, Governor Orien.  Only with the help of a street-boy named Quiz, who turns out to be the ruling Sagelord's youngest son, Esmond Lilord, and her own proficiency in Common Magic, does Isaveth discover the true culprits and gets her father freed.  Ah, it should be the end of the story, but it's only the beginning of a twisted conspiracy with Esmond's older brother, Eryx Lording, at its center.

Though her family continues to face the challenges of being practising Moshites, considered lawless and radical by much of society, and of Papa finding limited work and of the family struggling with finances, Isaveth has benefitted from her friendship with Esmond.  He introduced her to the charming president of Glow-Mor Light and Fire Company, J. J. Wregget, who purchased her magic-resistant paper and has offered her a scholarship to attend the excusive Tarreton College for nobility and the wealthy, which offers general and magical (i.e. Sagery) education.

It would appear that things are on the upswing for Isaveth and her family, but her attendance at Tarreton brings new incidents of discrimination and bullying against the thirteen-year-old girl.  Though Esmond, who is a year ahead of her, continues to communicate secretly with Isaveth in the hopes of a kiss (!) and of exposing the evil deeds of his cunning brother, the two try to keep their relationship a secret.  But Isaveth does make the acquaintance of the friendly and supportive, though still secretive, Eulalie Fairpont, daughter of the new Deputy Justice.

While Esmond searches for evidence of Eryx’s guilt, amidst party planning for his sister Civilla’s coming-of-age ball (depicted on the cover of A Little Taste of Poison), concern grows for the health of his bombastic father, Lord Arvis, the Sagelord.  But, the masked ball, to which Esmond arranges for Isaveth to attend, brings more mysterious circumstances, including a murder worthy of an Agatha Christie story.

A Little Taste of Poison, and its predecessor A Pocket Full of Murder, are no ordinary mysteries however.  R. J. Anderson creates a time and place of magic like no other.  The worlds in which these mysteries take place are complex and otherworldly, filled with spell-tablets and magic cookery, political and educational institutions ruled by sagelords, masters and mistresses, imperials for money, contraptions like crystal-sets, and a society of Arcans, Uniting folk and Moshites.   And all of it adds to the richness of the story, the characters and the messages against discrimination and greed and for equality, determination, and courage.  That’s an astounding accomplishment for a fantasy novel for middle-grade readers.  But, just as Dr. Seuss penned cheerful rhyming children’s books disguised as parables, R. J. Anderson writes extraordinary fantasies steeped in magic that have much to teach us about society.
…just because you don’t have money doesn’t mean you’ve got no worth” (pg. 153)
By inviting us into Tarreton and environs, and a time of both a familiar past and unfamiliar age,  R. J. Anderson easily entertains, teaches and pleases the reader with her words and story.

Come and hear R. J. Anderson read, and perhaps get a book or two signed, at the Eden Mills Writers' Festival this September 18, 2016. Details here at CanLit for LittleCanadians.

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