I’m going to start off with a bit of bad news, a no-no for a book review but it’s fun to break the rules now and again, right?
Ok, so, if you’re a bigoted asshole who was hoping author Kalynn Bayron was going to be a one and done with her first book, then pretty please allow me the pleasure of giving you some very bad news. Not only did she craft a near perfect sophomore book and what looks to be my favorite of 2021, but it’s become very clear that Kalynn is here to stay. And it’s a case of bad news for you, good news for me, because at two books in, Kalynn has become one of my absolute favorite storytellers in publishing today.
Yes, from the bestselling author of the patriarch-stomping, homophobic-destroying, misogynoir-slaying Cinderella Is Dead, comes another inspiring and deeply compelling story about a young woman with the power to conquer the dark forces descending around her. Darkness blooms in This Poison Heart, Kalynn Bayron’s new contemporary fantasy about a girl with a unique and deadly power.
Here’s the summary…
Briseis has a gift: she can grow plants from tiny seeds to rich blooms with a single touch.
When Briseis’s aunt dies and wills her a dilapidated estate in rural New York, Bri and her parents decide to leave Brooklyn behind for the summer. Hopefully there, surrounded by plants and flowers, Bri will finally learn to control her gift. But their new home is sinister in ways they could never have imagined–it comes with a specific set of instructions, an old-school apothecary, and a walled garden filled with the deadliest botanicals in the world that can only be entered by those who share Bri’s unique family lineage.
When strangers begin to arrive on their doorstep, asking for tinctures and elixirs, Bri learns she has a surprising talent for creating them. One of the visitors is Marie, a mysterious young woman who Bri befriends, only to find that Marie is keeping dark secrets about the history of the estate and its surrounding community. There is more to Bri’s sudden inheritance than she could have imagined, and she is determined to uncover it . . . until a nefarious group comes after her in search of a rare and dangerous immortality elixir. Up against a centuries-old curse and the deadliest plant on earth, Bri must harness her gift to protect herself and her family.
Whoever proofed that summary deserves some recognition because it’s more than up to the task of giving you just enough to whet your appetite, without giving much of anything away. And trust me, there’s a big part of this narrative that the summary shrewdly practices the Five D’s of dodgeball, as it carefully dodges, ducks, dips, dives and dodges. What can I tell you, I appreciate a good summary and this one is a goodie.
So, with my dramatics out of the way, Kalynn Bayron is back with This Poison Heart, a book that is such an unapologetically joyful reading experience, that I seriously can’t imagine anyone not liking it. Let’s get to it, and we’ll start with temperature, humidity to be exact. In a book about botany, the greenhouse effect is immediately apparent as we are inserted into a hot and sticky modern day Brooklyn summer, and to make this infernal hell more so, there’s no air conditioning.
Yes, Bri’s moms, Angie (Mo) and Thandie (Mom) work and live in the same building, with their apartment sitting just above their street fronted flower shop, the aptly named “Bri’s Flowers”. Everything is going up in price, including the literal cost of doing business, so first-world luxuries like air conditioning, are just that, a luxury. And when they receive notice that their rent is going up, again, they’ve reached their breaking point financially.
Bri’s origin story, that is to say the source of her powers, falls under the “Superpowerful Genetics” category, or someone who has inherited their abilities from a parent or ancestor. She of course hasn’t really figured this out yet and still doesn’t know the limits of her resources, so she tests them whenever she can in secret. For their part, Angie and Thandie are aware Bri has certain gifts, they’re certainly aware of the side effects when she uses them, but out of fear, they do their best to keep it under wraps. But Bri has been toiling in mithridatism as well, testing her immunity to poisonous plants and flowers, something her mom’s definitely don’t know about.
Before we go much further it’s important to take a little break here and talk about Kalynn’s set-up, because it’s important. We are presented with a Black family struggling amidst tough financial times, with social assistance programs like rent control nowhere to be found. They are of course, thanks to systematic and financial institutional racism, kept from achieving the “American dream” , not given access to traditional wealth-building tools such as access to capital or conventional small business loans. Most Black families who are self-employed are either forced to close or are reliant on endowments from family members (very rare) that could help ease any burdens. In the case of Angie and Thandie, the miracle they need and the answer to most, if not all of their money problems, happens to occupy the second bedroom in their cute, but tiny apartment.
Call it coincidence, call it fate, but Bri’s powers are perfectly suited to solve her family’s financial woes. Her ability to grow/revive/sustain plant life would allow them to produce as many of, and any type of plant or flower the shop requires, allowing for more business and relieving them of that cost, which is significant. Bri is more than willing to do this, but every time she flexes this muscle there are side effects which can’t be ignored. Side effects Angie and Thandie refuse to be a party to, no matter how slight the discomfort, and even if the end result meant total financial freedom.
Imagine if you will, that the answer to all your life’s problems is in an envelope on the moon, and you’ve got Captain Marvel at your disposal, but you’re asking her not to fly. Why would you do that? Especially when they’re willing to make that sacrifice? I’ll tell you why, love, the best kind, the purest kind. We’ll get to more of this later.
Back to the origin story.
“My friends were pulling away from me, my parents were worried about me, school was a mess, and this power squatting inside me was trying to break free.”
To add more stress to an already stressful situation, Bri’s 2.7 GPA isn’t good enough to get into local colleges and she’s been drifting apart from her best friend Gabby. For her part, Gabby doesn’t know the whole story but understands there’s something funny going on when it comes to Bri and anything with chloroplast. Bri is hesitant to tell her the whole truth, and understandably so because Gabby hasn’t given any indication, she’s as supportive as she needs to be. Up until now, it’s mostly been belittling comments and snide remarks, not what I would call best friend material.
So, when things seem to be at their worst, they get a phone call from an Estate Lawyer named Melissa Redmond who wants to meet. Turns out Bri’s remaining biological family member, her Aunt Circe Colchis, sister to her birth mother Selene, has passed away leaving Bri her entire estate. This includes a ginormous Addam’s Family type house upstate New York, outside a small town called Rhinebeck. Oh, and not only is it private but it also comes with 40 acres of untouched land.
For someone with Bri’s abilities, and her burgeoning interest in the effects of phytotoxicology, this wide-open greenspace might as well be the Garden of Eden for her, but there’s a lot to unpack for this seemingly too-good-to-be-true opportunity. Not to mention the topic of Bri’s birth mother isn’t something that’s been broached a lot. For the absolute record and something that I made clear a second ago, Bri unequivocally, undeniably, undisputedly loves her moms, and they love her. They are THE most important people in her life, and she would blow up fucking mountains for them if she could. But, with not many options left, the make the decision to at least give it a shot.
“It stood like it had sprouted from the ground, like a living thing.”
After a Hamilton inspired 2.5-hour drive, the three of them arrive in Rhinebeck, aka Pleasantville meets Get Out, in other words, weirdsville. They get lost of course which inspires a funny MapQuest joke (I’m old so I got it), but they eventually find their way to their maybe new home. It’s old, dusty, cobwebby, kinda creepy, has a Bates family stench to it, but none of that quells their feeling of possibility and hope, so, they waste little time and head inside. The walkthrough reveals several interesting and mystery tings about the house, not least of which is they discover an apothecary, which is basically an organic pharmacy.
They head to a turret and find a painting of Madea, the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis (yes, the same Colchis as her Aunt Circe), as well as some old books discussing Greek Mythology. One of the books called Venenum Hortus (Poison Garden) depicts a very strange looking flower indeed, the Absyrtus Heart, the most poisonous plant in the world. This aspect of the book was partly inspired by the real “Poison Garden”, located on the grounds of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, England. Click HERE for more information on that uniquely beautiful but dangerous place.
Behind this creepy but “can’t take your eyes off it” painting is a safe, which Bri can unlock thanks to a letter from Circe in the estate package. When she’s alone, she unlocks the safe to find three more letters, instructions, from Circe, and this is where the adventure begins.
“Whenever you hear a story about villainous women, you should ask who’s telling the story.”
Listen, simple google searching all these Greek names will help piece together some of what you’re after, but I’m here to tell you, it won’t prepare you for the third act, not one bit. Although, I will say this, there is a quick mention of something, a clue in the book, which will give you some idea of what to expect not only in this book I believe, but the next one as well, but on that, these lips are sealed. And I know what you’re saying, Greek mythology? In this book? Yes, and not only is it great but I guarantee it will be one of your favorite examples of integrating myth into a contemporary story not this year, but ever. But moving on.
I very much like how Kalynn doesn’t let things settle, even for a hot minute, as shit gets weird fast. The inherited mansion trope is alive and well, but what secrets lay within is what Bri will spend some time figuring out. Not only that, but the town itself and surrounding area has a strange history and an eclectic mix of people to go along with it. This book is a modern fantasy with a strong penchant for murder/mystery so expect the cast to reflect that motif. From Dr. Grant on down, each person they encounter only makes things less clear, as everyone but Bri seems to understand her purpose in Rhinebeck. This with the fact that there’s so much ambiguity surrounding her family’s disappearances’ and what exactly the family business was, only adds to the mystery.
She soon meets Karter, a Black boy Bri’s age who quickly becomes her friend and who happens to be Ms. Redmond’s son. With no history or baggage, Bri feels more like herself around Karter than Gabby and quickly reveals her abilities to him. For his part, Karter is nice but a bit strange himself, and clearly has mommy issues, but Bri seems willing to take it slow and easy with him, being her only friend in town. That is until she meets Marie Morris.
“The way she said my name sent a flood of warmth through me, and not the kind that brought flower to bloom.”
Listen, saying much of anything about Marie is a spoiler minefield, but for now, let’s just say that they’re fortuitous meeting was anything but, and her connection to Bri’s family goes back an unnaturally long way. Like the summary says, Marie is an enigma, trapped in a riddle, so let’s just leave it at that for the time being. But, if you should know anything about Marie, know this, when it comes to Bri’s safety, let’s just say that I wouldn’t lay so much as a fucking finger on Bri if she’s around. Oh, and just wait until you meet Nyx.
Since we can’t say much about the story beyond this point, we’ll stick to one of the books highest achievements which is her character work. As with Cinderella is Dead, Kalynn’s character work is so tactile and corporeal, where every act and every word spoken is a semantic one, not muddled at all in vagaries. Because of this, every single character is three-dimensional, they are purposeful, and they are wonderful. Do you know how hard that is, to make your entire cast list not only vital to the plot, but compelling to the reader? From Bri, to Karter, to Dr. Grant, to Nyx, all the way down, each character is written with a complexity and thoughtfulness that is impressive in its pursuit.
Here’s how she does it.
For starters, she doesn’t limit her characters to a certain set of rules or behaviors; they are open to explore characteristics that we should find either unexpected, or at the very least warranted. How people react determines trait, and their traits drive the story forward because that creates plot, Kalynn is exceptionally good at creating plot.
Up next is a simple one that gets messed up all the time, especially with “chosen one” leads, but giving your main character a sense of grace is a sure-fire way to lure me in. Of course, they should have a purpose, that’s story circle stuff, that’s what gets them out the door and on their way. But when done well it’s a great way to find relatability between the characters and your audience, our shared search for the truth. And giving her character’s a voice is Kalynn’s superpower.
Three-dimensionality IS believability, and there’s no better way to do that in writing than by infusing your own life experience into the character(s). But Kalynn uses her experiences not to furtively tell her own life story or write a memoir, but as a qualifier concerning her chosen craft of storytelling, I mean, that’s some serious fourth wall shit. We are not worthy.
“It’s you baby. You’re some kind of actual Black girl magic.”
The magic in This Poison Heart will feel both familiar and unique. Familiar, because there are of course classic characters from the world of fiction that have similar abilities. It’s unique because of the specific ancestral origin of Bri’s powers, and also because for the first time ever to my knowledge, it’s a Black girl wielding them. At one point Karter even refers to Bri as a “Black Poison Ivy”, while that’s a little on the nose, it’s an effective enough (albeit white) comparable. More recently, DC Comics introduced Bella Garten aka “The Gardener”, a Black villain who specializes in animal/plant hybrids, so, not really the same thing, but again, good enough for a comp.
By her very nature and ability, Bri is a walking literary pathetic fallacy, which is a personification based on emotion. This relationship with the living world, which is bestowed on it by Bri’s emotional and physical states, is symbiotic in every sense of the word. Want to know how Bri is feeling or her state of mind? Just take a look around, assuming there’s flora and/or fauna nearby. If you’re a friend or loved one, it’s a great way to know when something’s wrong, if you’re a threat, it’s a great way to know you’re about to get fucked up. And as things progress, and as Bri gets more comfortable with her abilities, people do indeed start to really see what she’s capable of. So much, that by the end she’s ready to “stretch” (thanks Mo) like never before.
Along with Bethany C. Morrow, Kalynn has embraced this type of modern fantasy fabulist style that is exactly the kind of book I like to read. It’s as if they were tailor made according to my sensibilities and as you’d expect, man, it sure does feel good, it feels like coming home.
Speaking of home, family is the lifeblood of This Poison Heart, and how you can make a home out of just about anywhere if you’ve got love of family in tow, even at some creepy as shit mansion in the middle of a Jordan Peele movie set. Yes, Angie and Thandie not only provide the love and stability Bri needs, but they also serve up most of, if not all the book’s levity, which is laugh out loud funny on more than a few occasions. In Botanese speak, if there’s a vascular bundle to this book (which there is), and Bri is phloem, then Andie and Thandie are definitely the xylem.
For Bri, they are “mad extra” and just a few years behind the times, with their behavior a combination of overbearing and eye-rolling. Here’s a little secret though, Bri loves it, because she knows their love is unconditional, unwavering, and rock solid, and because they have great taste in music. And because between corny jokes, burnt waffles, and questionable pitch, they’re mama bear energy proficiency score is off the charts and is a force to be reckoned with. Bri knows, without a doubt in her mind, that mamas Greene will always make her well-being their number one priority. It’s their role as adoptive parents though that I would look to as the book’s best example of Kalynn’s quality of person and one of the hallmarks of her writing.
“What she did, for whatever reason she did it, was a choice that allowed us to be together.”
Their relationship is one of trust, love, and acceptance and if there is a better example of two more empathetic people, I’m not aware of it. Adoptees, either because of calamity, abuse, neglect, loss, or all of the above, can find themselves with an understandably low self-esteem, the feeling of being lost. And how they recover from that, and the process for which they can hopefully become empathetic human beings, is such a precarious and sacred responsibility of the adoptive parent(s). This is an area where Angie and Thandie excel in, having given Bri the lifeblood and wherewithal she’s needed to become not just a nice person, but a good person, with a good heart, and a good soul. I’ll tell you one thing; the world could certainly do with having more Angie and Thandie’s in it.
Like Morrow’s incredible A Song Below Water duology, Kalynn comments on real-world, specifically race-related issues without it being allegorical. What does that mean? Well, she presents her social commentary in a way that binds itself to the plot in clever ways, or in some cases, just states it outright. An example of this is the conversation about defunding the police and the formation of the Rhinebeck Public Safety office. What Rhinebeck has done is in line with what many believe (I’m one of them) is the type of systematic change that needs to happen with our police forces, and not soon enough. And there are other more pertinent examples of white privilege and having the history of Black culture and their ancestral lines purposely erased by white people, again echoing real life, but that’s spoiler territory.
And one thing it’s most definitely NOT is performance activism, writer’s like Kalynn say what they mean, and mean what they say. There’s no bullshit here, it just happens to be gussied up in pretty fucking great storytelling, so forgive yourself if you didn’t get the message right away or simply got lost in the magic, it happens.
So, what’s the bottom line?
Believe you me, I’ve said very little about the second act, and I’m not saying shit about the third, zilch, because it’s crafted so well that the last thing Kalynn needs is an idiot like me spoiling it for someone else. The bottom line is this, I adored This Poison Heart with every fiber of my being, falling head over heels in love with her lead, and as a result, will most likely be my favorite book of 2021.
Writers like Kalynn, who never felt represented in fantasy, sci-fi, YA, whatever, and who the publishing industry wasn’t coming to for ideas, well, they’re starting to kick the motherfucking door down, and we are the fortunate benefactors of that direct action. The cover, which is the best this year and was illustrated by Raymond Sebastien, is a great example of that. You don’t see yourself on a cover? Okay, so, put yourself on one then. Genius.
To order a copy of This Poison Heart, which I highly suggest you do, click HERE!
Art illustrated and used with permission by Katura Gaines. To see more of her great work, click one of the links below!