YA Weekend: The Poison Season by Mara Rutherford
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Inkyard Press (December 6, 2022)
Length: 400 pages
At first I didn’t know what I was expecting when I picked up The Poison Season, but I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would. This light fantasy romance with touches of a fairy tale takes place in a remote forest where a small island rests in the middle of a poisonous lake. No one really knows how the waters became poisoned, but it will kill anything that tries to cross it.
But the lake also protects those who live on the island, called Endla. Born and raised there, Leelo has spent her entire life hearing stories of how dangerous outsiders are and how they would destroy her home if they had a chance. The Endlans have developed a culture around song, using the magic in their singing to communicate with the creatures of the forest as well as to manipulate human minds. With these powers, they also make sacrifices to the island and guard it from intrusion from outsiders.
But the risks do not come only from without. Endlans are so protective of their secrets that they will even banish their own people if they do not show an aptitude for magic by their twelfth birthday. Unfortunately, Leelo’s own younger brother is deemed unmagical and is set to be exiled, causing her and their mother no small amount of grief. In her sorrow, Leelo goes to be alone by the lake and spies a young man on the other shore. In spite of him being an outsider, she waves to him.
Jaren is from the nearby village, who never believed in magic before he and his family moved here, but very quickly he is realizing there is more to Endla than meets the eye. One day, while escaping from an unnaturally vicious wolf, Jaren tries to cross the lake to the island in an act of desperation to get away, and almost drowns. He is saved by a pale-haired girl, whom he recognizes as the one who waved to him. But what he doesn’t realize is that by saving him, Leelo has put them both in danger. For it was her duty as a watcher to kill any outsider she should encounter, and if she is to be found harboring Jaren, the consequences for her could be deadly.
I loved that The Poison Season never tries to be more than it is, a trait which is actually quite refreshing in a YA novel. The gist of the premise is simple, and the scope of the world-building small yet fascinating and satisfying. The entire story takes place around the poison lake, and the lore surrounding it has the vibe of a dark fairy tale.
This spare approach also means more time and attention given to developing the characters. Leelo is a protagonist the reader can sympathize and connect with—headstrong and determined, but still deemed too softhearted by her aunt and cousin who see weakness in Leelo’s refusal to sacrifice animals or even in her love for her soon-to-be-banished brother. Right away, readers gather that Endlans are a hard people. They do what must be done in order to survive and protect their way of life from outsiders. Of course, that Leelo has a more contemplative side and does not fall in line unquestioningly kind of makes her a bit of an outsider herself.
It made the resulting romance between her and Jaren much more convincing and natural. Theirs was a love story that I found sweet and captivating. Just as the main plot was a slowburn, so was the romance arc. The dual POVs of Leelo and Jaren gave readers a look into both sides of the relationship to see how their feelings developed mutually. Overall, I thought it was a well-written romance that had genuine chemistry.
Bottom line, this was an uncomplicated but enjoyable novel about magic and romance that had the alluring quality of a fairy tale. I can count on one hand the number of Young Adult books I read in 2022, but I’m glad that The Poison Season was one of them.