Source: ARC from Edelweiss
Published: October 20, 2020
Princess Sophie has always known that her stepmother the queen, as well the court, thought her too weak, too kind to rule. But she never thought that her stepmother would actually try to have her killed. Rescued by seven brothers in an enchanted wood, Sophie is safe, for now. However, her heart has been stolen and, if she wants to live, Sophie will have to get it back. Does she have the courage to dare the impossible?
Jennifer Donnelly follows up Stepsister with another feminist retelling, this time of “Snow White.” Sophie is the heir to the throne, but her stepmother the queen believes her kindness will endanger the country. Fearing that Sophie is a threat to her, the queen orders her killed. To reclaim what is hers, Sophie will need to stop listening to the voices that tell her she is not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough. She will have to find her own power, and learn that kindness is far from a weakness. Poisoned reimagines “Snow White” as a vibrant call to resist the patriarchy, reclaim kindness, and find true strength in one’s self.
Donnelly begins her story with a note briefly explaining its inspiration and purpose. She wishes to empower readers who may feel “less than” because of what society or social media tells them. Poisoned thus risks feeling a little didactic; Donnelly has told us the moral from the start. However, she deftly sidesteps this issue by purposefully embracing the fairy tale as moral. Her work is peopled with allegorical figures. It is told by an omniscient narrator, whose credentials are that he has done the wrong thing and died for it. It repeatedly tells readers its message, over and over again–strength lies within and cannot be conferred or taken away by anyone else’s words. And it works.
Part of my issue with Donnelly’s previous retelling, Stepsister, is that the speeches coming from the characters feel a little forced. Men do not have to go around explicitly announcing that women must be kept in their place lest they grow too powerful. The patriarchy is usually more insidious, and more subtle. And therefore far more dangerous. Poisoned removes this issue by having the omniscient narrator describe the evils of the patriarchy, the poison of treacherous words. No more over-the-top speeches by the characters themselves. It works because the fairy tale has always taught a message–the woods are a dark and dangerous place, but you can come out on the other side, if you are bright and bold.
The plotline itself is extremely engaging and action-packed. Donnelly clearly delights in having her characters face a myriad of monsters and other dangers as they travel, so readers never need fear getting bored. And Sophie is a delightful protagonist. Kind, yes, but not unrealistically or annoyingly sugary. She simply wants to do the right thing, even if she is not always sure what to do or confident enough to do it. But she has enough spunk to her that readers can easily believe that she can grow and change.
Poisoned will appeal to any readers who love retold fairy tales, especially ones that go beyond the original to create a wholly new world with its own rules, settings, and politics. It blends fast-paced action with reflection, creating a YA novel that feels like a true homage to a beloved story. If you are a fan of “Snow White,” a lover of YA fantasy, or simply a reader looking for the next engrossing story, Poisoned has plenty to offer.