Alex Brown Reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart, Kalynn Bayron (Bloomsbury 978-1547603909, 384pp, $18.99, hc) June 2021.

Briseis Greene has a thing for plants. Liter­ally. Ever since she was little, Bri has had the inexplicable ability to make plants grow. Plants react to her emotions and often bend toward her as if she were a walking, talking ray of sunshine. Her adoptive mothers, Thandie and Angie, don’t quite know what to do with her. They encourage her to be cautious about letting others know what she can do without shaming her for something she has no control over. Life in Brook­lyn isn’t easy for the Greenes. Bri’s fairweather friends have found other people to occupy their time while her moms are struggling to pay rent on their cramped apartment and their flower shop in their rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. A reprieve arrives in the form of an unexpected inheritance. The sister of Bri’s biological mother left the niece she never met a grand mansion and 40 sprawling acres in the rural town of Rhinebeck, a few hours north of New York City.

Once in Rhinebeck, the plot kicks into high gear. Bri befriends a boy named Karter with too many secrets and a girl named Marie with even more. Her dead aunt leads Bri on a scavenger hunt guided by obscure clues and mysterious keys. And deep in the woods behind her new home lies a secret garden within a secret garden, one full of medicinal plants and the other filled with the most poisonous plants in the world. Apparently, the Colchis sisters, Circe and Bri’s biological mother, Selene, ran an apothecary that had been passed down for generations, supplying locals with natural remedies and, as Bri quickly learns, ingredients for spells. As romance blooms, so does the mystery of what happened to Bri’s an­cestors and what lies at the center of the poison garden. Dangerous people want what only she has the power to protect, and they’re willing to kill everyone she loves to get it.

This Poison Heart juggles a lot of ideas, but it mostly manages to make it all work. The first book in Kalynn Bayron’s new series folds in Greek mythology, a murder mystery, and a cute but fraught queer romance. Bayron also relies heavily on tropes, but that is not a negative as far as I’m concerned. I’m a big fan of tropes and love seeing how marginalized authors take them in new and interesting directions, something Bayron does very well here, and a big part of that is due to how well-developed her characters are. The cast is large but not unmanageably so. While each character has a recognizable role to play, their personalities are unique enough to make them stand out.

At its center, This Poison Heart is a story about family, the one you’re born into and the ones you create. Bri’s adoptive mothers have never kept her adoption hidden or denied her access to her biological mother. They acknowledge Bri’s past while helping her carve out a future of her own. Importantly, when their daughter has the op­portunity to live in her ancestral home and get to know her late biological mother, they never get jealous over Bri’s attention. They offer her support on her journey and space to process without throwing Selene under the bus or guilt tripping Bri for want­ing to learn more about her ancestors. Unlike many YA fantasies, Angie and Thandie are present for or at least aware of most of the magical shenanigans that take place; Bri does not feel like she has to face her insurmountable odds alone.

One of the things I appreciated most about This Poison Heart was its structure. It would be tempting to write a story like this that begins right in the middle of the action, however, Bayron eases the reader into it. There is a ton of backstory to get through in order for the final confrontation to make sense. For the most part, she delivers those informational reveals without clogging up the narrative or slow­ing down the flow.

The story does meander a bit, but it always feels like intentional meandering. We need to see Bri grow into her powers, to see her stumble and fall and pick herself back up again. Bri has every reason to fear her plant magic and lots of reasons to distrust the secrets her newly acquired friends and family are keeping from her. She’s so desper­ate for friendship that she’s willing to overlook unanswered questions she would normally press, yet she’s also wise enough to acknowledge that she’s letting things temporarily slide. This is not a naive young woman walking into something she doesn’t understand. At every turn, Bri tries to make the right choice based on limited informa­tion, deliberate obfuscation by others, and what is best for her and her moms. Sometimes she makes a choice the reader knows is wrong, but for Bri it’s often the best of bad options.

I began This Poison Heart thinking it was a standalone, but, as the ending makes clear, it is the first in a series. This is definitely one I’m looking forward to continuing. It’s a fast-paced mystery with a clever twist on the myth of Medea. The story is full of queer Black girl magic, and I can’t wait to see where Kalynn Bayron takes it.

Alex Brown is a queer Black librarian and writer. They have written two books on the history of Napa County, California’s marginalized communities. They write about adult and young adult science fiction, fantasy, and horror as well as BIPOC history and librarianship. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and access set the foundation of all their work. Alex lives in Southern California with their pet rats and ever-increasing piles of books.

This review and more like it in the August 2021 issue of Locus.

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