Book Review: The Colour of Poison
by Toni Mount
I generally can find something I love about most books. This is not to say that I’m not a critical reader, but for the most part I can take nearly any book at face value and enjoy it for the qualities it has as an individual work. What can I say? I’m a glass-half-full kinda gal! I understand what goes into every aspect of writing, from the plot imagining, to the drafting, editing, polishing, etc. It’s a tough, tough job when done well. With that in mind, I tend to write positive reviews of the books I read, because what’s the point of tearing apart someone’s hard work if what I have to say is merely subjective? And let’s be honest, most unfavorable reviews focus on the subjective. Not every book will please every reader. What might be one person’s negative could be another’s positive.
An odd way to start a review? Perhaps. But I wanted to set the stage for the positive review I am about to give for The Colour of Poison, to put it into perspective amongst the other positive reviews I write for books.
If this book was a rock band, I’d be a groupie. If this book was crack, I’d be an addict. I am generally a very responsible reader – when it’s time for bed, or when I have to leave to be somewhere on time, I can usually put a book down and go about the business of adulting. Not so with this book. While I was reading it, I couldn’t be trusted around it. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about reading it; when I was reading it, the real world ceased to exist, and I inhaled it.
So what about this book elicits such die-hard devotion? In no particular order: exquisite prose, sumptuous description, and multi-dimensioned, flesh-and-bones real characters.
I’m not sure how to review the exquisite prose. It’s simply expertly done. As a lover of words, I appreciate the masterful use of carefully chosen words. Several times throughout the book, Seb (the main protagonist) speaks so intelligently that he has to stop and translate himself to other characters, and no one more so than the charming yet rascally street urchin Jack Tabor.
As for the sumptuous description… I’m a sucker for it. Ms. Mount writes the lurid streets of 15th century London as if she is painting with vivid colors. She didn’t just research the history of domestic life and write a story around it, she wrote it as if she was intimately familiar with it, as if she had personally walked the streets and lived in its neighborhoods. There is a personal knowing in her approach to the city, and this makes her prose stand out.
Each character, whether prominent or secondary, was exquisitely drawn. Each is imbued with unique personalities distinct from the others: Jack, the street urchin, cheeky and resourceful, Dame Ellen, bold and confident, yet soft and affectionate in her way. Jude, the older brother with a fierce, yet oftentimes poorly communicated love for his younger brother. Sir Robert Percy, the well-placed bridge between the Foxley brothers and the highest ranks of nobility. And Emily Appleyard – the sweet, hard-working love interest.
One of my favorites was definitely Seb, the main protagonist. Born with significant skeletal deformities which make even the basic functions of every day life a challenge for him, he shines on the page. In any other situation, he would likely not have survived. But because of his loyal and supportive brother, he has been able to live a relatively normal life. He has been gifted with a brilliant mind, and he uses his finely honed intellectual abilities to help solve the mystery of the murders. Ms. Mount does a wonderful job detailing without overdoing it, the problems Seb faces, from his inability to dress himself to the abuse he receives from boys who torment him and mock him, to people who see his deformity as a judgment from God. Even so, on the outside Seb is hardened to this kind of treatment. He has experienced it all his life, and he readily expects it every time he steps out his door. His inner life, on the other hand, bears the scars. His relationships and interactions with others reflect his inner turmoil, and the first person narrative allows us to witness the inner misery Seb experiences. “I loathed my body. God – or the Devil – had created a mockery for others’ amusement and I had to live with it – if such an existence could be called ‘living’.”
Jude is a delightfully imperfect character. Seb is simultaneously terrified of his brother and indebted to him. “I cowered before my brother when he was like this. He loved me, cared for me, but… I stared, unfocused, at my hands. Why wouldn’t Jude let me alone, to wallow in my despair?”
Richard, Duke of Gloucester appears true to life, fair, and realistic. For history fanatics who know the controversial aspects of the man later in his life, know that this snapshot happens early in his life, so there is no controversy. All “sides” of the question of Richard’s character should find no fault in how he is written.
Is there anything I would have wished was done differently? Well, yes, though nothing substantial to impact my review or rating — just some subjective things which have nothing to do with the suburb quality of the book but which would be on a personal wish list, so to speak. I will put those thoughts after the closing of my review, so only read them if you have read the book or else don’t mind knowing what will happen.
The plot is well devised, the pace perfect. For a medieval murder mystery you can’t go wrong. For a glimpse at life in 15th century London, I’ve yet to find anything to surpass the feast that this book has to offer. Highly recommended for lovers of mysteries and historical fiction.
About Toni Mount
Toni Mount is a writer, history teacher, a speaker and an historic interpreter, based in south-east England. She brings stories of our history alive with books, courses and talks, based on thirty years of personal and academic study.
To learn more about Ms. Mount, visit her website, tonimount.co.uk or follow her on Twitter (@tonihistorian).
Her books can be purchased on Amazon and other retailers.
…And now…. the ***SPOILER WARNING***
My critiques, for what they are worth:
I would have loved for the Duke of Gloucester to make some kind of private aside to Seb about the connection between the two of them regarding their mutual physical difficulties. Realistically though, I’m sure it’s not something the Duke would have ever talked about with someone of Seb’s social station, if anyone else EVER, for that matter. Even so, I kept hoping for that little personal connection even if it wasn’t realistic.
I can’t claim to know much about Francis Lovell, and what little I know of him comes from fiction. Even so, his character wasn’t what I expected. As a villain, he was very well done. His arrogant and flippant approach to those deemed below him was superb even if it was different than my previous internal image of him. He dripped with disdain for the lower classes.
This one is perhaps the biggest for me: I wish the author had done an author’s notes at the end to explain some of the historical detail. I love historical fiction authors who explain what parts of their book they drew directly from history and which parts were purely fiction. In the case of this book, there wasn’t much history beyond time and place, but it would have been an excellent opportunity to explain aspects of the life of people living a common existence in London.
Further to the idea of an author’s notes, I was fascinated by the author’s choice to have Seb’s physical condition be affected by Lovell’s attempt to kill him. The fact that he walked away from the experience with joints a little straighter was an applaud-worthy moment for me. But I am curious if there was some medical explanation behind this. I’m happy to accept it as fiction, but author’s notes would have been an opportunity to reveal intriguing behind the scenes research.