~by Sara Poole
Poison, Sara Poole's debut novel, is the tenth book that I have been privileged to receive through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. I was actually somewhat surprised to be matched up with Poison, but do not dare to question the Almighty Algorithm. I was interested in and requested Poison for a few different reasons. The first thing that caught my eye, besides the lovely cover, was that it was to some extent about the infamous Borgia family. (I recently learned about the Borgias through You Higuri's historical fantasy manga Cantarella.) The second thing interested me was that Poison deals with, well, poison and is narrated by a professional poisoner--something that has become a particular interest of mine lately (really, this is nothing to worry about, I assure you). I enjoy historical novels and even though I haven't read many set in Renaissance Italy, I was looking forward to trying out Poole's work which promised at hints of romance and intrigue, too.
Francesca Giordano is young and ambitious. More specifically, she is determined to become the professional poisoner of the Borgia family, a position that was previously held by her father before his murder. Despite her age, and despite her sex, she secures the title regardless of the cost, believing that only then will she be in a powerful enough position to avenge her father's death. But the responsibilities of a poisoner are heavy, especially when your charge has his eyes set on the papacy. Francesca quickly finds herself deeply involved in the plots and intrigues of Rome and the Church. Hoping that in the process she will be able to discover the truths behind her father's murder, she must first decide exactly how much, and who, she is willing to risk.
I found it somewhat hard to believe that Francesca, a young woman, was so easily able to obtain the position of the Borgias' personal poisoner. Ignoring that, I actually really liked this basic premise of the book. However, I often was troubled by the characters in Poison. Their motivations and reasoning behind their actions were not always clear. Even when explained, the leaps of logic were sometimes difficult to follow and only occasionally made any sense to me. Part of this may be caused by the prose telling more than showing. Francesca would declare what her feelings were but little was given to support her statements and I wasn't convinced. It's unfortunate, but the characters and their characterizations just didn't work for me.
Ultimately, I must say that I was mostly disappointed with Poison. There were elements that I enjoyed immensely--the interesting historical tidbits and the portions about poisons, poisoning, and poisoners' duties were fascinating--but I found the book to be more frustrating than anything else. I felt little or no connection with Francesca throughout the entire novel, a problem seeing as she is not only the heroine but the narrator as well. She had a habit of breaking the narrative flow to make a comment or address the reader directly. Sometimes this technique can work very well, but in the case of Poison it was just annoying, especially when the asides often amounted to "I could tell you more about this, but I'm not going to" and obscured the chronology of the story. Personally, I also wanted the writing to be more descriptive than it actually was; I never really got a good feel for Poison's time and place which is a weakness when dealing with historical fiction. However, I did greatly appreciate Poole's inclusion of an author's note where she mentions some of the sources she consulted and briefly discusses where historical fact and fiction intersect in Poison. So, while I did not enjoy Poison as much as I was hoping to, I am glad that I had the opportunity to read it.