Review: Poison Princess Opens Up YA Market for Kresley Cole

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Poison Princess (The Arcana Chronicles #1)
by Kresley Cole (New York:
Simon & Schuster, 2012)
The other day one of my colleagues, a psychologist and an avid reader of YA literature, walked up to me in the library and said, "If I read one more book blurb about a girl discovering her abilities who finds herself 'strangely drawn' to the local bad boy, I'm going to scream."

I hear you, Kathy.

It's become an obnoxious device in paranormal romance that a young woman with "new" powers or abilities ends up transforming her personality, often with the assistance of the recently arrived bad boy who knows more than she does (yes, the sexual implication is obvious even when it goes unexplored). Even when the guy is hot and compelling, it would be an easy step to falling into the trope that a woman needs a man to draw out her best, most powerful self, and many authors have tumbled into that ditch with abandon. Yuck!

The good news? Kresley Cole's awesome new book, Poison Princess, isn't like that. Set in a post-apocalyptic world (through extended flashbacks we actually experience the apocalypse), Poison Princess is the first in Cole's new series, The Arcana Chronicles, and her first foray into the world of young adult literature.

I offer this introduction and caveat because the cover (which is lovely) and the jacket blurb could easily give this impression based on the reader's advisory conversations I've had with students.  But be aware that Cole's well-written novel is actually an amazing blend of apocalyptic fiction, paranormal romance, and occasionally horror. It's populated with flawed, interesting characters who keep the reader guessing through the course of the novel and who, I'm sure, will be further fleshed out as the series progresses.

Live vines in the bayou
Evie Greene lives in a beautiful house in one of the oldest and most beautiful houses in her Southern town. She's gorgeous, popular and dating a lovable and talented football player, but she's also just returned from a summer in a mental hospital. Her mother is walking on eggshells and Evie has managed to tell no one - not her boyfriend, not her best friend - about the horrifying nightmares which fill her nights as she worries she might end up back in that horrifying place. She fills sketchbooks with these disturbing images in an effort to purge them but worries that all the drugs and doctors in the world aren't going to give her a normal life.

At school, things aren't looking up either. Yes, her friends are great and her boyfriend attentive (particularly during their discussion about Evie losing her virginity to him) but a recent group of kids straight from the bayou have just transferred in and their poverty and their Cajun French immediately marks them as outsiders, even before their hostile attitudes register with students and teachers. That the ringleader, Jackson Deveaux, is as hot as they come doesn't make up for the chip on his shoulder. He can't stop staring at Evie but also clearly can't stand her.

When bizarre flare reduces most people and places to ashes, Evie and her mother are struggling to just survive and the outlook is not good...until Jack Deveraux turns up like a bad penny on his motorcycle offering a chance of a future. But now that Evie knows to trust her visions and has recently figured out one of her abilities (and it's one that would have her even more hunted in the world she now lives in), she doesn't trust Jack's intentions but she does believe in his survival skills, so they embark on the road to finding Evie's grandmother together.

Evie can't stop thinking about her grandmother, who kidnapped Evie when she was just a little girl, and who understood Evie's visions and tried to convince her of the magic in her blood. A tarot reader, Evie's grandmother explained a great deal to Evie but she realizes she's forgotten a lot of it and the doctors brainwashed another chunk of it out, so Evie realizes that she needs to get to this long-lost woman who might have valuable answers. Considering that her mother took a restraining order out against her after Evie's kidnapping, this isn't going to be easy.

What I think is so brilliant about Cole's writing is the romance between Jack and Evie. Jack is a total ass and Evie can acknowledge to herself that he's handsome and there's a physical attraction but that he's given her no reason to like or trust him. Readers are able to figure out that with Jack's horrible home life and role models (or lack thereof) it's entirely likely that he has no idea how to communicate his feelings at all to a girl, instead relying on cryptic conversations and anger. His Cajun French is wicked sexy but until the last part of the book, it's hard to figure out the depth of his feeling for Evie.

The other Tarot card figures are enigmatic at best and few seem to fall into the fully good or fully evil category which I love. The fact that there are still a few characters who have been seen in visions but not yet appeared in person (particularly Death, who sounds like he's going to throw a real wrench, both from a fighting perspective and a romantic perspective) makes me chomp at the bit for the next book!

My only complaint regarding this novel is that it's written in the first person (another common YA device) and I sorely miss hearing Jack's perspective, even when I agree with Cole's writer decision to give us events as they come to fruition inside Evie's head. The only time we are not with Evie's POV is when we are in the mind of the psycho serial killer, whose experience bookends Poison Princess, offering a brilliantly tight ending with the Tarot theme.

Of concern for librarians is the fact that Kresley Cole is an established adult romance writer whose excellent Immortals After Dark series is incredibly popular among adult paranormal romance readers. I wish she had taken a slightly different name for the Arcana Chronicles, because I can see a lot of teen readers eager to read more of her work picking these up. These adult romance books are also unbelievably well-written and actually hilariously funny, but on the sensuality scale, they fall between "scorcher" and "erotic" romance with their level of explicit description.

It's gratifying to see a terrific author like Kresley Cole not only branching into young adult paranormal but also kicking butt with her great writing and compelling characters. Her female leads definitely don't need men to help them realize who they are and they don't put up with being treated badly. With Poison Princess, Cole has created a dark new world populated by individuals readers will want to follow to the end of the series. I for one, am glad that she has embarked on this new adventure!


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March 20, 2013 9:04 AM delete

A great lead-in to this review. I so often stop reading because the lead-ins are boring. Also, I very much resonate with your friend's comment. :)