Filled with morally-complicated characters and a life-or-death competition, The Kinder Poison by Natalie Mae will keep you turning pages until the very end. I came into this book not very excited, because high concept, plot-heavy novels are not usually my cup of tea, but I was pleasantly surprised by how engaging and interesting the characters turned out to be.
The kingdom of Orkena has an age-old tradition for choosing the next monarch: the Crossing. All the king’s children must choose a healer and a fighter, and then set off into the desert. If they can survive and make it to the caves on the other side, and be the first to do so, they will sacrifice someone chosen by the gods and be crowned king or queen. It all kicks off with a banquet where the royal heirs all choose their team.
Zahru has always been a girl who dreams of adventure, of seeing a world beyond the stable where she works with her father. Sadly, her status is too low to earn her an invitation to the Crossing Banquet as a spectator, so she and her best friend Hen devise a way to sneak her in, using her dead mother’s name. Unfortunately, their plan backfires and Zahru is accidentally entered as a contestant. She tries to lay low, hoping no one will notice her, but one misstep and she finds herself caught between the two princes, determined to outdo each other, and she is marked by the oldest brother as the human Sacrifice. They set off to cross the desert, and while it looks like there’s no way out, Zahru is determined to escape somehow.
As they travel deeper and deeper into the desert, Zahru finds that escaping is not as easy as she originally thought. She also finds herself becoming more and more emotionally involved in the lives of the royal siblings. As much as she wants to leave them and go home to her father, she knows she can’t leave these people with nothing. She has to see this Crossing through—not just for these people, but also for the country that she loves.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this book was the magic system. In Orkena, everyone has a different kind of magic, and performing magic slowly sucks your life force away, so how long you live depends on how powerful your type of magic is—for example, Healers rarely live past 20. Zahru, however, is a Whisperer, which means she can speak to animals, one of the weakest and most belittled types of magic. Throughout the story, she struggles with feelings of worthlessness because of her lowly magic, like she can never be good enough. She needs to come to terms with the truth that she has incredible worth, which is a huge part of her character arc.
Ultimately, it was the characters that really tied me to the story. I loved Zahru because I relate to her struggle. She’s an active and determined character, always planning how she’s going to escape and get back to her father, even when it seems impossible, but I appreciated that she wasn’t the invincible, warrior type of heroine that we see so often in YA. Instead, she was a real girl with real flaws.
I also fell in love with all three royal siblings. They were all so unique; despite sharing an abusive father, their past and their relationships shape each of them in different ways. The older two, Jet and Kasta, have an intense rivalry, which manifests in a love triangle between them and Zahru, although Zahru prefers Jet, the more handsome and charming brother. And the youngest sister, Sakira, although not on the page for very long, still quickly reveals her rich backstory and engaging personality.
The oldest brother, Kasta, is both the most interesting and the most tragic. Throughout the story, we learn about his backstory piece by piece, and we slowly begin to understand why he became such a bitter, angry person. What set this portrayal apart, however, was that while the author made us feel sympathetic for him, she never excused his behavior. Jet feels guilty because he blames himself for Kasta’s bad behavior, because he thinks their checkered past made him that way, but Zahru assures him that while their past may have influenced Kasta, Kasta still chose his actions. You cannot choose what happens to you, but you can choose how that experience shapes you.
This book is a genuine diamond in the rough, a gem of a book that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end. Beyond suspense, it has character, it has emotion… basically everything you want in a book. So what are you waiting for? Get reading!