Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Poisoned - Jennifer Donnelly

Summary:  Once upon a time, a girl named Sophie rode into the forest with the queen's huntsman.  Her lips were the color of ripe cherries, her skin as soft as new-fallen snow, her hair as dark as midnight.  When they stopped to rest, the huntsman pulled out his knife...and took Sophie's heart.

It shouldn't have come as a surprise.  Sophie had heard the rumors, the whispers.  They said she was too kind and foolish to rule -- a waste of a princess.  A disaster of a future queen.  And Sophie believed them.  She believed everything she'd heard about herself, the poisonous words people use to keep girls like Sophie from becoming too powerful, too strong...

With the help of seven mysterious strangers, Sophie manages to survive.  But when she realizes that the brutal queen might not be to blame for the attack, Sophie must find the courage to face a more terrifying enemy, proving that even the darkest magic can't extinguish the fire burning inside every girl, and that kindness is the ultimate form of strength. (Summary from book flap - Image from

My Review:  I was beyond thrilled when I heard that Jennifer Donnelly was releasing another fairytale retelling.  I loved her previous novel, Stepsister (review here) and was hopeful she would knock my socks off with Poisoned, as well.  While both books are fully capable of standing alone, they do make lovely shelf-companions. The cover is absolutely brilliant.  I love the contrast of the black, red, and gold.  It's stunning!  

Poisoned is a reinvention of the classic fairytale, Snow White, with a charming cast of characters and a very important message.  Princess Charlotta-Sidonia Wilhelmina Sophia, Sophie for short, has a kind heart -- an unforgiveable weakness in the eyes of her stepmother and other members of court.  Sophie hears the horrible things they say, that she is hopelessly unfit to rule, and can't help but take their biting words to heart.  She tries to be the leader everyone says she must be -- cruel, unyielding, merciless -- but can never quite pull it off.  Then one fateful day, the princess rides into the Darkwood with the huntsman...and loses her heart. She manages to survive the ordeal, thanks to some rather small gentlemen who fashion a temporary fix, but it will not last.  Sophie embarks on a perilous journey to retrieve her heart from the one who has stolen it.  Along the way, she learns powerful lessons about herself, her kingdom, and what it really takes to lead.  

Poisoned sends readers with Sophie (and a few others) on a thrilling adventure that is peppered with suspense, humor, and a dash of romance.  Donnelly's writing flows like poetry, weaving an atmosphere of magic and nostalgia with an old-school fairytale vibe that favors Grimm's darker themes. Case and point: The narrator is dead and Sophie has her heart cut out on the very first page.  Don't worry, though.  Even though the princess and her cohorts get into a number of violent scrapes, the effect is somehow muted by the author's choice of words.  At most, it's a low PG-13.

YA lit doesn't always take the moral high road, nowadays, so I appreciate when authors make a concerted effort to write stories that uplift and inspire young readers. Sophie is incredibly relatable with a lovely character arc.  At the beginning of the story, she is unsure of herself, frozen in fear and tormented by the negative criticism she has received from others.  As the story progresses, Sophie learns to see herself and others more clearly and, in doing so, finds the courage and the confidence to do what must be done.  Her story conveys a message of equality and empowerment that will likely appeal to women of all ages, but especially those wading through the murky waters of adolescence and/or those who struggle with self-confidence.  

 Weighed against its predecessor, Poisoned falls slightly short, but don't let that put you off -- Stepsister set the bar rather high.  Honestly, there wasn't much about this book that I didn't like.  Occasionally, the narrator breaks the fourth wall by addressing the reader directly (meh) and the moral sometimes comes across heavy-handed, but if that is what it takes for the message to sink in, so be it.  

As with my review of Stepsister, I'd like to include some of my favorite Poisoned quotes that give you a feel for the book, without spoiling things:

"I give them no actual cause to diminish me, so they must invent one.  Nothing scares a weak man more than a strong woman."

"They can tell you everything you're not, but they can't make you believe it -- only you can do that."

"Sometimes the thing that makes us all wrong is the thing that makes us perfect."

"Slander a king, and the slanderer will lose his head.  Slander a queen , and the queen will lose hers."

"Love is a soft thing. It smells like woodsmoke and sounds like rain.  It tastes like sugared apples.  It costs nothing to give yet is more precious than a sea of diamonds. "

"Watch a child die for the lack of a few coins. Do that, and you might start to understand a few things, like the difference between a theft and a crime."

"Love is a fearsome thing.  It's braver than generals, stronger than fortresses. It opens graves and pulls rings off corpses.  It sits up through the long, lonely night with a failing child. It fashion

s hearts out of scraps and bits and rusty things and makes them beat on, no matter how many times they break."

"It's not the poisoned object that kills us...It's us.  We, ourselves. We listen to the snakes.  We let the scorpions close. We believe the hisses, the whispers, the words that tell us all we are not and will never be."

 "People need to follow their hearts, or they die long before the thing stops beating."

"Only a fool feels no fear.  Bravery is being afraid but doing what you must anyway."

"But look at her. What dead person looks like that? Dead people are all gooey. And crumbly."

Okay, that last one was just funny.  *snicker*  Crumbly.  But, seriously though.  Those quotes!

I don't know about you, but I am frequently plagued by thoughts of self-doubt and have a tendency to obsess over the myriad ways I'm failing instead of focusing on the things I do well.  Poisoned is the antidote to all of that.  It also serves as a compelling reminder that kindness is never weakness, that confidence is key, and that love truly does conquer all. We need more books like this one, and if the epilogue is any indication, more are on the way!

My Rating:  4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some violence, magic, and dark themes, in keeping with older fairytales.  Could be scary for a younger audience, but probably fine for teens.  One character briefly admires another's backside.  Two people sleep (just sleep) together. A handful of curses of the A** and B*stard variety.  A character commits suicide, discussion brief.

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