It was all so real. Isabel wasn’t a myth. A myth is simple. Isabel was a muddled mess. Like Marisol, she had big, impossible dreams. Like me, she was teetering on a line between bending to the will of her father and piloting her own future. She was just a girl trying to make a blanket out of leaves. In that moment, it seemed perfectly within the bounds of normalcy.
—A Fierce and Subtle Poison, by Samantha Mabry
Seventeen-year-old Lucas Knight lives in Texas during the school year, but spends every summer in Puerto Rico at his father’s posh convent-turned-hotel in Old San Juan. He loves Puerto Rico as-is, and he’s fascinated by local folklore—especially the stories that center around the cursed and crumbling house at the end of the street, a house that is supposedly inhabited by a wish-granting witch with “green skin and grass for hair”—but he knows that eventually, he’ll end up taking the path of least resistance and working for his father’s company, developing the quiet beaches he loves into cushy, soulless resorts. So he spends his summer nights getting loaded with his friends and making out with the local girls, and his summer days recovering from said nights. As he puts it:
I’d tried to be different, but despite my efforts to not become my dad, it was happening. If people hated him, they hated me, too—they hated the way I always had money but no job, how I was arrested for minor offenses but never charged, how I broke their daughters’ hearts and only sort of cared.
Then, on the same night, enter Marisol Reyes and Isabel Ford: Marisol is the latest in Lucas’ long line of romantic connections, and Isabel is the rock-throwing, wish-collecting girl from the cursed house. Two days later, Marisol’s body washes up on the beach and Lucas finds himself in police custody, and he’s positive that Isabel knows more than she’s telling...
A Fierce and Subtle Poison plays with the idea of heroism: it considers the narrative we are so often given, the one that places the hero at the center of the story, versus the narrative of real life, in which all of the players have their own wants and needs and agency. Mabry pushes back against the idea that a hero is a person who saves the people he cares about regardless of all else—even if his actions directly contradict and thwart his loved ones’ own desires. She frames that sort of heroism as an act of arrogance and selfishness and ego—the hero placing his own needs over the needs of others—and she shows how, depending on the circumstances, stepping back and away and taking no action can be harder than running into a burning building.
In different hands, this book could easily have been one more entry on the long list of stories about boys who are changed by their connections to tragic and surprising and mysterious girls. But thankfully, that’s not the case here: Lucas is our window into the world of the book, but it’s not really his story. Yes, he has an arc of growth—he begins in privileged, self-indulgent apathy and ends up in a more thoughtful, less-self-centered place—but this book is really about Isabel. She’s the one with the redemption arc, she’s the one who makes the big choices, she’s the one who moves the story forward, she’s the one who owns the emotional core.
There’s more: In showing us Lucas’ version of San Juan, Mabry touches on class and race and the divisions between locals and tourists; she highlights how murder doesn’t seem to matter unless the victim is someone with money and power; she looks at the importance of perspective when it comes to myth and belief, showing that depending on perspective, myth and belief are different words for the same thing. It may not be a great fit for readers who like their endings neat and want their characters to enjoy traditional Happily Ever Afters. But readers who like open-endedness, who want atmosphere and tension and lovely imagery, would do well to pick it up.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.