A Little Taste of Poison
By R.J. Anderson
Paperback, 362 pages
Isaveth is a talented spell-baker, but as a poor Moshite she never dreamed she’d see the inside of Tarrenton college to learn advanced Sagery – especially not after the recent scandal surrounding her father. When she’s offered the chance to attend on a scholarship, she accepts, though she knows it will be difficult given her background and the attitudes of the rich, elites who attend the college. Now, however, she has the chance to meet with her friend Esmond so they can continue to uncover the plot behind the crime Isaveth’s father was framed for. Attending classes turns out to be more difficult than she imagined and Isaveth soon finds herself in more trouble than ever before.
It’s a struggle to talk about this book without giving away too many details. You should, of course, read its predecessor, A Pocket Full of Murder, first. Then we can talk about how spectacular this middle-grade duology is!
Isaveth is such a compelling character and I was happy to be back in her world. I love the magical, semi-steampunk, Victorian feel of the city of Tarrenton. I also love that there are two forms of magic: Sagery and Common Magic. In the previous book we learned about Isaveth’s spell-baking and the everyday spells she can craft like light and heat tablets. Her skill at this is what earns her a spot at the college and this book delves more into the arts of Sagery, which involve costly metals and gems, which is why only the rich can afford to learn it.
As with the first book, Isaveth deals with a lot of prejudice regarding her religion and her social status. I love when middle-grade doesn’t shy away from difficult topics like politics, classism and religious persecution. Anderson handles these topics deftly through Isaveth’s experiences and avoids being heavy-handed or preachy. I can’t speak for what I would have thought about all this when I was younger, but I feel like these topics are taken seriously, yet remain relatable to a younger audience. I think you all know that I love some darkness in my middle-grade and certainly, a protagonist dealing with prejudice from both students and adults simply because of her religion and family income, not to mention the actual murder plots, is right up my alley.
The plot involves a lot of action and mystery, with the magic blended into everyday life. I enjoy that overall magic is taken seriously and yet it’s also so common that those who learn it aren’t taken for extraordinary. Magical items are used daily, by everyone, and those learning Sagery are treated as they would be for any other career path. I was initially worried that Isaveth attending college would turn into a daily rundown of her classes (a trope I’m not a fan of), but fortunately, it alternated between pertinent class interactions and Isaveth’s other adventures.
I won’t say anything else about the plot, as it’s a sequel. So let’s talk about a scene that really impressed me. In the previous book, Esmond asks Isaveth if he can kiss her (points for that) and she declines. Throughout the book, Esmond continues to ask if he can kiss her (though not so often that it feels pushy) and she always comes up with silly responses as to why he can’t. At the end, she finally decides that it’s right time to kiss him. I really loved that Esmond was so polite about the kiss and never pressured her and also that Isaveth wasn’t kissing him simply because she doesn’t want to. She even admits to herself that she wasn’t sure why she didn’t want to kiss him, it just didn’t feel right. That is so perfect and an excellent message for younger (and even teen) readers. It’s ok to like someone and not want to kiss them if the time doesn’t feel right.
I also thought it was interesting that one of Isaveth’s friends has IBS. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a character in any book, let alone a middle-grade fantasy, that has IBS. It’s not a major part of the story, but casually addressed and the character expresses that she just wants people to treat her normally. It’s not called IBS by the way, but that’s what I took it to be, or something similar.
I really didn’t have any issues with this book. There is the whole, new kid is immediately bullied cliché, but given Isaveth’s differences and the history of the type of students the school has enrolled, it makes some sense. I also don’t understand why wizards, specifically ones in schools, have to wear robes. I feel like they’re not even practical most of the time! This is just me nitpicking because really, I loved this book.
ALSO THE EPILOGUE. Two little paragraphs at the end literally had me shouting expletives out loud after I read them. A+ ending.
If you haven’t already added A Pocket Full of Murder and A Little Taste of Poison to your wishlists/TBRs, I highly suggest you do so. Excellent for fans of middle-grade, magic, steampunk and mystery! Also, look at that gorgeous cover art!