Lucas Knight doesn’t have any shining armor. He’s the spoiled child of a wealthy white developer in Puerto Rico, and the most good he’s done is all in his head. He wishes things were different—that his father wasn’t a sneering aristocrat, that his Puerto Rican neighbors would actually accept him, that his mother hadn’t left—but does nothing to affect those changes. Day after day he gets drunk with his friends, stays out chasing girls, and recognizes his privilege only insofar as it makes him feel guilty.
Most of all he wishes he could free the house down the way of its curse. Years ago, a scientist committed some grave sin of cruelty or neglect, and his wife abandoned him. Now the house is shuttered, haunted. No bird will fly over it. No sounds issue from it. Lucas and his friends invent stories to explain the strangeness of the house, and sometimes Lucas remembers them, in between bouts of inebriation and casual sex.
It sounds like I’m describing an antagonist rather than a protagonist, and to a certain extent that’s true. Lucas isn’t an angel, and he isn’t so thoroughly damaged that his irresponsibility inspires pity. He knows better, in other words. But because we are privy to his inner life, we know that’s not all there is to him. He follows his impulses, but also his heart. He’s kind, and he knows justice from injustice. He’s also still reeling from his mother leaving him when he was a child, and he longs to drift out into a featureless ocean, to be free of the burden of his knowledge. Because he can’t change things. He can’t stop his father from developing luxury hotels that take advantage of the poor. He couldn’t stop his mother from abandoning him.
So when the chance comes to learn more about the mysterious inhabitant of the old, shuttered house, he leaps on it. After all, he might be able to help her, a girl his own age with intense eyes and poisonous skin. And when they can perhaps help rescue a disappeared girl, the younger sister of one of his flings, he literally flings himself into the path of a hurricane to do it.
Missing tourists, star-crossed nuns, and a choir of tongue-clucking mothers and aunties round out this passion play, and the island itself comes to be a character, asserting itself on the beaches and jungles and wind-whipped skies as a palpable and very interested presence. Love for Puerto Rico and sorrow for its long history is woven through the narrative. How good it is to see an author so thoroughly embrace a place as well as its characters, who are also excellently complex.
Though I do find that, on balance, the odd romance between Lucas and Isabel works, it could have used more fleshing out. More time, certainly, since the narrative rushes everything along at a breakneck pace. The urgency is a narrative necessity, since Lucas and Isabel are racing against time to save a girl’s life, but it makes their romance suspect as well as star-crossed. They can’t touch, after all. And since Lucas is a bit of a player, we never see whether this infatuation is grounds for a genuine love or merely a convenient receptacle for their misplaced feelings of abandonment and desperation. I certainly appreciate the departure from YA tropes, but pushing the true love angle doesn’t entirely ring true.
Other elements—the disappearance of the girls, the temporary vegetative relief for Isabel’s affliction–are too strange for reality but also lack the magical realism or mythologizing to make them seem true (Truth not being reality or vice versa, and all that), especially in a world where such mundane horrors (racism, imperialism) lurk. Yet other elements—the fever dreams, the existence of a poison child–are boldly mythic. The result is a hybrid that, while compelling, is not quite enough for me to suspend my disbelief and become thoroughly lost in the story.
Still, the sheer audacity it takes to bring together all these elements in a YA novel and mostly–99%–succeed is remarkable. My qualms are few and my admiration is strong. A Fierce and Subtle Poison is the antidote to ordinary romances and medieval magic—it’s a real original.