Audiobook Review: A Fierce and Subtle Poison, Samantha Mabry (2016)

July 1st, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Awful narrator is awful.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free audiobook for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

— 2.5 stars —

In theory (on paper? hardee har har!), A Fierce and Subtle Poison has the bones of a great story – or at least one I’m all but guaranteed to love. A mad scientist. A cursed house (not to mention a haunted hotel and beach). A witch with green skin, hair made of grass, and a belly full of poison. A setting with a nonwhite majority, and a diverse cast of characters to match. Star-crossed lovers … maybe. More than one pair, perhaps. A tragic ending.

And yet this book never really took off for me. There are a ton of little details that vexed me, but ultimately what it comes down to is the narrator: Lucas Knight is irritating as fuck, and not in an enjoyable, Gone Girl, love-to-hate-him kind of way.

The son of an American real estate developer, Lucas is both aware of and repulsed by his father’s bigotry and arrogance, as well as the privilege that being rich and white affords them both. The senior Michael Knight is pretentious, overbearing, and casually racist. Sure he married an “island girl,” but that doesn’t mean that he has any respect for her culture, land, or people. (See, e.g., the “I have a black friend argument.”) He constantly refers to Puerto Ricans as backwards and ignorant. Likewise, he treats “the help” – those islanders who work at his hotels, washing his clothes, cooking and serving his meals, and cleaning his rooms – like you’d expect: as part of the background scenery, at best. Whereas Lucas cherishes the wild, unspoiled nature of the island, Michael looks at a pristine beach and sees only shiny new hotels (and the cash monies they’re sure to bring). Even the historic St. Lucia doesn’t get a pass.

Michael reserves the worst of his loathing for the island women, especially the ‘bitter harpy’ – I’m paraphrasing, but not by much – Detective Mara Lopez, who’s ‘out to get’ Lucas and his dad because she’s ‘jealous of their wealth.’ Displaced feelings much, hmmm? Why don’t you tell Lucas what you really think of his mother?

While Lucas recoils at his father’s racism, sexism, and greed, he has no problems falling back on his undeserved privilege as needed. He spends his summers staying at his father’s hotel in Puerto Rico; bouncing around the island, drinking, partying, womanizing. He’s seemingly made out with every teenage girl on the island, happy to wrap himself in the stereotype that American boys will treat you “better.” (As if!) Until the epilogue, Lucas seemingly hasn’t worked a day in his life, happy to let his father’s staff fetch him meals (half of which he doesn’t even eat), launder his mud- and vomit-stained clothes, and just generally wait on him hand and foot. When he’s arrested, Lucas is totally willing to let his father buy his way out of trouble. (“Throw his dick around” is what I originally wrote, but I’m trying to be mature here.)

When Marisol’s body washes up on the beach, Lucas’s grief takes primacy, even over that of her own family. Lucas calls Marisol’s cousin Reuben a friend, yet barges into his room several days after Marisol’s murder. Never mind that the last time they saw each other, the two fought; and Reuben just wants Lucas to leave. When he hears the news reporting on Marisol’s death from the other side of Reuben’s door, he tries to break it down. Because it’s not like you can’t go home and watch a regurgitation of the same segment in an hour? Or just pick up a damn newspaper? Nope, Lucas and his needs come first, always.

And this, I think, is the crux of the problem with A Fierce and Subtle Poison: Lucas hates his father, claims to want to be a different/better man, and yet acts like a spoiled little shit anyway. Everything is about him. Marisol’s death? Perhaps he dropped by her family’s house to pay his respects, but that “respect” was the first thing to go when it stood in the way of his wants. Isabel’s illness? A chance for him to play the hero. Celia’s disappearance? Ditto. In his zeal to disprove his likeness to his father, Lucas mostly succeeds in doing the exact opposite.

Granted, Lucas’s awfulness is challenged during the course of the story: once by his friends, repeatedly by Isabel, and even (I think) by the ending. Yet it feels too little, too late, and can’t erase the unpleasant reading experience that gets us there. (Mabry’s writing is lovely; many of the characters are not.)

So…yeah. I just can’t with this one. If I hadn’t listened to the audiobook, I might have DNF’ed it halfway through. As it was, Graham Hamilton did a near-perfect job of encapsulating the narrator … which isn’t really meant as a compliment. He just made me want to throttle Lucas that much harder.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. MC Lucas Knight is biracial (we think): his father is a white American, while his (absent) mother was born in the Dominican Republic. Mom was adopted by a pair of white doctors working on the island, who moved her to the States as a preteen. She didn’t know anything about her birth parents, though, and with blonde hair and blue eyes she could pass as white as easily as Lucas can.

Isabel is also biracial: her dad is white (from England or Ireland, I think), while her mom (also absent) was born in a small village in Puerto Rico. Afflicted with a mysterious disease, her body full of poison, Isabel is dying.

The story is set in Puerto Rico and, aside from Michael Knight and Dr. Ford, most of the cast features people of color, born in the Caribbean Islands.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a


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