It’s been absolutely ages since I have done one of these but I plan to bring them back to being a regular feature! Today, I want to talk about one of my favourite books: Poison. It’s a dark, twisted look on the traditional fairy tale and very self aware, poking at tropes and narrative devices used in fairy tales. I’ll keep my summary brief and a little vague because I don’t want to give everything away.
Some Background Information
Author: Chris Wooding
Fairy tale tropes featured: Evil witch, helpful stranger, riddles
Aarne-Thompson folklore index type: F321 ‘Faerie steals child from cradle and leaves faerie substitute.’
Poison is a bit of an outcast and, like many fairy tale protagonists, has a stepmother who dislikes her and a father who doesn’t notice. The story begins when Poison’s baby sister, Azalea, is stolen by phaeries and a changeling is left in her place. There is a lot of folklore centred around changelings; people believed that babies were swapped for fairy children. There are various myths on why, from babies being sacrificed to the devil to fairies wanting to be raised on mortal food. This theft spurs Poison onto a quest to to travel to the Realm of Phaeries and demand that they return her sister.
This book has a high fantasy world with inspiration from folk and fairy tales. Humans are the weakest of all the creatures, divided and cowering in corners of the world following a many-sided war. There are also phaeries, trolls, ghoblins and other creatures, each separated within their realms. In order to reach the phaeries, Poison must travel through realms via a ‘passing place’. With the help of Bram, a travelling Wraith-catcher, who agrees to give her passage out of Gull, Poison finds her way to the house of Maeb, the Bone Witch where she must stay for 24 hours in order to pass into the phaerie realm.
Although the witch is blind, she’s twice the size of an average human, has two wicked dogs to aid her and a taste for human flesh. In Maeb’s house Poison meets Peppercorn, a naive but sweet girl and Anderson the cat, who live there. They help Poison hide, but she is later caught by Maeb but this being a fairy tale, Poison survives, with the aid of Bram who follows her into the house and together, they defeat the witch.
Don’t hide away, little one! I’ll make dice from your knuckles! I’ll suck your marrow dry!
Poison, Bram, Peppercorn and Anderson enter the phaerie realm in the morning and make their way to meet the Phaerie Lord, Aelthar at his castle. Under the law of the Heirophant, they are allowed one audience with him where they are protected from harm. Poison demands her sister back and Aelthar agrees, on the condition that she travel to the realm of spiders and steal a dagger. Although humans are the weakest, this allows them to easily pass through different realms undetected. Poison and her friends manage to steal the dagger and bring it back only to find out that Aelthar never intended on keeping his promise and means to kill him.
The party decide to hide and eventually finding themselves at the mysterious Heirophant’s castle. He is the most powerful human in all of the realms and this man’s word is law. Here, Poison and her friends become embroiled in a much larger plot – one of power and politics across the realms. The Heirophant is the key to finding the way to the happily ever after part of this fairy tale.
Aaaand I’m going to stop there, because the ending of this book is just too fantastic to spoil here. There are also lots I haven’t commented on either, but the larger plot is so cleverly written that I urge you to read this yourself.
Poison: stubborn and curious about the world. She questions why her world is so miserable and why everyone accepts this. She itches to be part of something bigger. Usually in fairy tales, quest stories are centred around dashing young men, so Poison subverts that expectation.
Peppercorn: This is closer to the trapped princess character you find in many fairy tales. Living in the Bone Witch’s house, she’s part servant, part prisoner, helping to clean in exchange for keeping her life.
Anderson the cat: We don’t know much about his origins and although he doesn’t speak, he seems to understand the humans. Very reminiscent of fairy tales to have a friendly animal guide.
Aelthar: The Lord of the Phaeries and the main antagonist. Aelthar is devious, villainous and just plain bad, reflecting on the dark fairy creatures that exist in folklore. He sees humans as beneath him because they’re small and weak and powerless.
Maeb, the Bone Witch: A staple of any fairy tale is an evil witch, and add to that she is a cannibalistic one which makes her even more monstrous. This character seems like a bigger, badder version of the witch in Hansel and Gretel and is absolutely terrifying.
Passing places: the witch bone’s house is a passing place, that allows the traveller to move between the human realm and the phaerie realm. It’s proportions are all off, the nights are longer here and the witch has decorated the house with the skulls of her previous victims (a la Baba Yaga, classic cannibalistic decor).
Asinastra’s Dagger: A weapon belonging to the lady of the webs, Asinastra, who rules over the spider realm. I like how creative this weapon is and reflective of the spider-queen who owns it: a two-pronged dagger, it drains the victim of its blood after they have been stabbed.
The Great Library: I love libraries; this is news to no one. But this fictional library, located in the Heirophant’s castle is extra special because it holds your story in it. Antiquarians record what happens to individuals and the ink appears once the story is finished. The books then reside in the Great Library.
Happily Ever After?
So, this is definitely not a traditional walking into the sunset ending. There’s no romance plot, no royal wedding so, despite borrowing from folklore and fairy tales, it’s decidedly not a fairy tale ending. Having said that, the ending is absolutely perfect for this story and, like much of the tale, subverts expectations. It also has an excellent twist.