Not going to lie, my initial interest in the book was because of the stunning cover and interesting title.
A Fierce and Subtle Poison takes you into the world of Puerto Rico, where señoras still tell tales of the house at the end of the street, a house with a curse left by a woman who once lived there. They talk of the girl with green skin and grass for hair, a girl who can grant wishes. Lucas doesn’t know what tale–if any–is the true one, but the house and its mysteries have held a fascination for him every summer when he returns to Puerto Rico with his father. One summer, Lucas is pelted with rocks from behind the walls of the house. He has no idea that this small moment will be what drags him into a mystery with that girl, with dangers that are more threatening than he can ever imagine.
This is the debut novel of Samantha Mabry. It’s a mystery set in the heat of Puerto Rico with its customs, legends, and superstitions, which provided an extremely rich setting for this story. Lucas has a hard time fitting in as the white kid (even though he’s only half), with people looking at him with distrust and suspicion no matter what he does. Of course, he does nothing to rid himself of those feelings, often running with a crowd that lands on the drunk-and-disorderly side. I felt that this was very realistic, however. In a tight knit community, the prejudices against the foreigners who are taking the island for their own pleasure without considering its culture and history would be viewed constantly as outsiders.
As a protagonist, Lucas was okay. I found myself unable to connect with him when I was reading. He has a potential backstory, but moments to expand on that were passed over, which were a deterrent to his character development. I felt that he was very one dimensional, even though I was meant to find him more interesting. Even Isabel, the cursed girl, had potential that wasn’t met. I think she absolutely could have been more fascinating but instead of focusing on her character growth (and that of Lucas’), there was too much of a surface level focus on the mystery.
I did feel like it took too long for the book to get to the crux of what it’s about. There are multiple mysteries in its pages, but the threads are not connected (or barely hinted at being connected) until late in the novel. And then suddenly the story is off, running through the jungle with the leaves slapping at your face. The pacing was initially slow to the point where I questioned when the story was actually going to begin. I didn’t feel that I needed all of Lucas’ escapades, especially when they were all very similar and ended with little character development or point. I understand how hangovers work. When the pacing picked up, there was no middle point. I felt that there wasn’t enough of the subtle build up that is key for mysteries; all of a sudden everything was happening with reckless abandon for the reader.
Something that was done well and that I wanted more of was the exploration of the setting of Puerto Rico and its legends. Whenever the mythology of the world was brought up I was rapt with attention. I was interested in Isabel’s mother and her possible connection to the gods. That interest continued with the legends of the community and with the ghost of the hotel. All of these little tidbits that built the world up made me wish that the book had explored these elements a little more.
I definitely enjoyed reading this novel with its little bits of magic in the real world. I do wish that there had been more detail in some areas, but overall I thought the book was well-written and engaging. I recommend this novel for teens / young adults who enjoy mysteries but not necessarily the grittiness and violence that mysteries can sometimes contain. It had a wonderfully rich setting that you could really get lost in, and Samantha Mabry has a talent for building that. I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.
I received a copy of this title from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. A Fierce and Subtle Poison comes out on April 12th, 2016!