This is one of those books that had me going “meh” at the beginning (boy, was I wrong) but by the time I got to the middle I realized that I couldn’t stop reading. It ended up being addictive. Poison by Lan Chan starts off as a typical young adult dystopian novel, but gradually it becomes more than what is presented on a surface level. Aurora “Rory” Gray has already suffered much under the regime of the Seeders. Although they are the ones who supply seeds to the established villages, seeds that allow them to survive in a post-Famine, post-apocalyptic Australia, Rory knows how quickly their favor can turn on you. In Rory’s world, hiding seeds and propagating your own wild seeded plants away from the control of the Seeders means death. When someone from Gideon’s Landing is caught doing that, Rory’s world narrows to one need: go on a walkabout to the Citadel and plead for their help and forgiveness. Rory thought she understood how her world worked. When she gets to the Citadel, she realizes just how misguided she was.
The world of Poison is complex. Lan Chan does world building slowly and subtly, but not so subtly that you don’t notice it. She avoids info-dumping while still giving us a good taste of what she has created. Initially, the name “Seeders” bothered me. Yes, I realize that it makes sense to call them that now, but when I first picked up Poison I thought it was odd. Seeders have control over the seeds of the world. The importance of seeds in a world where poison has ravaged the land is not lost on them and thus it gives them complete control over the people who depend on them for survival. They live in the Citadel and send out seeds to the various establishments that are arranged around them like the spokes of a wheel. Do what the Citadel wants, and you’ll be taken care of. Do anything to incur their wrath, and you will be razed to the ground. Farmers grow the seeds on their own land, but the seeds in the final product are genetically modified to be sterile. Even if someone wanted to attempt growing their own from seeds from the last harvest, it’s impossible. Seeds are guarded tightly. To be caught with any sort of seed is a crime that means death. Survival in this stark world depends on the Citadel’s kindness. People don’t question their control after they stopped the Wanderer rebellions, a group of people who believe that what the Seeders are doing is wrong. Nearly everyone sees the Seeders as their saviors and don’t question them. Rory is one of the people who does.
Rory is half-Wanderer on her mother’s side, a fact that follows her in whispers wherever she goes. People distrust her, even though her father is an important doctor at the Citadel. After her mother is killed by Seeders, Rory becomes consumed with a desire to defy the Seeders’ control. The only good Seeder is a dead Seeder, she believes. When Poison starts, she has convinced herself that she is stronger than she actually is. Unfortunately for Rory, she can’t really see herself very clearly. In the early chapters, Rory encounters Reapers soon after she’s suffered the loss of her seed bunker. Reapers are sort of like the boogeymen of this world. They’ll kill anyone caught outside of the safety of their established cities and harvest their organs and are rumored to be cannibals. Rory is smart, so she luckily gets away from these guys, but she realizes how dangerous her decisions can be. That doesn’t stop her from going on a walkabout to the Citadel in an attempt to plead for mercy. It was a bit frustrating to read when she was stubborn and unwilling to accept help. She believes that she tough, but her actions show that she is a scared teenager desperately trying to get help for her family and village. A lot of her interactions remind me of a child stamping its foot when it doesn’t get its way. She doesn’t have the quiet inner strength that a lot of female protagonists seem to have. Gradually her character develops from this scared girl hiding behind a tough girl façade to someone who takes control of her life and actions and pushes back.
In addition to Rory, the secondary characters are also well developed. We’re given little glimpses of who they are and why they act the way they do. They have a smaller window for character growth only because Poison is in first person and the focus is on the protagonist, but in the time they have I was amazed at how Chan showed how they changed. Even if they are in the novel for a short time, I felt that I was able to grasp their character fairly well.Villains are humanized and Rory finds that she can relate to them a little, thereby allowing readers to relate to them too. I was disappointed that toward the end of the novel it became more of a focus on Rory herself instead of her interactions with other characters. I missed the character development that happens in discussions and I was annoyed that they were seemingly forgotten by Rory.
The plot of Poison is pretty linear once it gets started. I really liked the idea that seeds became the most important thing ever. It’s something different in a genre that is full of corrupt governments. In a post-apocalyptic world, people worry about food, water, and supplies, but they don’t always worry about how to continue after those supplies are gone. I really enjoyed that Lan Chan focused on how these seeds were saved. Of course, seeds don’t always survive, even when they are stored properly. I knew this from my brief stint in a horticulture class, so I was waiting for that little piece of information to devastate the characters in the book. Pinning complete survival on the seeds is like a ticking time bomb and I was a little anxious waiting to see if this would happen. I liked it because in a post-apocalyptic world, I don’t think people would necessarily realize that they need to worry about seeds.
There were unexpected moments in setting, character, and plot that I didn’t expect from a book that seemed to be just a young adult dystopian novel. It’s not often that I’m genuinely surprised because many books in this genre seem to follow a formula that is rarely altered because it does work. Including a bit of Australian culture also set this book apart from others that I have read in the genre. The addition of the walkabout, a part of traditional Aboriginal culture in Australia, was really fascinating. I understand that in a dystopian world, things aren’t always how they used to be culturally. Even so, I wish that more Aboriginal Australian culture had been included, particularly if the important event of a walkabout is going to be included. Although it is entirely possible that I missed the more subtle mentions.
Poison is a nice introduction to a world where seeds are the most precious commodity and the most dangerous. I hope the next books are as interesting of a read as this one. I’d recommend it for fans of dystopian novels with good characterization, strong protagonists, and where things aren’t always what they seem on the surface. It was truly a new and fascinating story in an often overdone genre.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Poison was published on September 1st, 2015.