Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Review of The Poisons of Caux: The Hollow Bettle by Susannah Appelbaum

In my ongoing quest to find fresh fantasy, I saw the book blurb for this one before it came out and added it to my list of Books to Read. The premise could scarcely be more original: Everyone in the entire country of Caux is trying to poison each other and not be poisoned. This is the doing of evil King Nightshade, who despised the king he deposed. Good King Verdigris valued herbs for their healing properties and was also a gifted sorcerer, the creator of magical buildings and secrets. In fact, Nightshade could hardly have taken the kingdom at all without the help of the Director of the Tasters' Guild, a terrifying man named Vidal Verjouce. Verjouce turns out to be the real villain here, the power behind the throne.

When our story begins, 11-year-old Ivy Manx lives with her uncle in an inn called The Hollow Bettle. Cecil Manx is secretly trying to train his niece as an apotheopath, a healer like himself, but she is far more intrigued by the study of poisons. Cecil leaves both the inn and Ivy in the dubious care of a taster named Sorrel Flux to go on a secret mission and then doesn't come back, so Ivy sets out to find him. She takes along the inn's famous bottle of brandywine with the hollow bettle in it, though she has replaced the liquid with a failed experiment of her own. Ivy is accompanied by another failure, a young taster named Rowan Truax. A new Guild taster, Rowan isn't a very good one. He has just overlooked the poison in a kettle of soup, resulting in the deaths of twenty of the king's soldiers. Both the Guild and the dead captain's vengeful family will be on the hunt for him. For her part, Ivy is the target of Flux and his associates, little dreaming of the true reason for their pursuit.

In a literary climate dominated by books like The Graveyard Book and Twilight, Appelbaum's book is a fitting one. Horror is selling well, and so is adventure. Although The Hollow Bettle isn't horror so much as fantasy, it is on the dark end of the fantasy spectrum because of the rampant poisoning. However, this book is surprisingly upbeat, and the darker plot points are handled in a tongue-in-cheek way. For example, the Queen of Caux's poisoning habits prompt her husband to point out that she is making it hard for the royal couple to get the care they deserve from their sadly reduced staff. The king and queen, like some of Appelbaum's other characters, have a Fellini-esque feel to them.

The poisonous tale twists and turns, sometimes more predictably than others. When a prophecy about a Noble Child comes up, every head in the room turns to look at Ivy. Magical tents and bettle boars, royal marks and hobbit-like trestlemen, this book is a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

The Hollow Bettle is so fast-paced that occasional gaps in the narrative logic show, as if the author were bounding across a marsh and missing a step every so often. These are mostly small things; for example, transportation shows up in odd ways on more than one occasion, just in the nick of time. Such coincidences can be distracting.

Appelbaum's book is a fun read, but it's what they call "a little uneven." I look forward to seeing both Ivy and the series grow in future volumes.

Note for Worried Parents: All this blithe poisoning may worry you, as may other violent plot points, such as the fact that when a failed Guild taster is caught, his tongue is cut out.


Doret said...

I thought this book was great. I screamed (just a little) when I got to that part about the tongue, didn't not expect that.

Kate Coombs said...

Yes--the villains, including that big tongueless guy, are deliciously scary!

Jessica Erin said...

Couldn't get past the first 100 pages. I'm a college student and was still unsettled at the light and almost airy mention of death, to the point that I first perceived "poisoning" to mean "food poisoning"--a two-day nightmarish bout of illness followed by an immediate return to full health. This is just too dark for I can't imagine how it would seem to a parent of a younger child.

Kate Coombs said...

Jessica--Good point. There's been some talk lately about how children's books are becoming darker, and this is a prime example of the trend.