The Poison Season / Mara Rutherford / Book Review

On a cold and savage mountain in the middle of a poison lake sits an island. Leelo has never been off this island. Not only is the lake too dangerous to approach, even when it freezes over in winter, but Endla is her home. The outside world is dangerous, savage, willing to kill without question--especially kill someone like Leelo, with the magic she carries in her voice. To let outsiders in would be to forfeit her entire community.

So when Leelo sees an outsider about to be swallowed by the lake, she knows what she must do: let him drown. If by some miracle he were to make it to the shore of Endla, it would be her duty to kill him. Leelo knows what she should do, but when it comes to the killing blow, she can't do it.

Jaren didn't mean to cross the lake. He was being chased. The boat was just convenient. He's not from the village. He doesn't know the stories about Endla and its ruthless inhabitants. But even he realizes something is off when Leelo hides him, betraying her family, her people. Injured from the lake's poisonous water, Jaren has to recuperate before he can cross back to his own people, but the longer Jaren stays--and the closer he and Leelo grow--the more danger they both find themselves in.


I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I really didn't enjoy Luminous, the previous Mara Rutherford novel I read, and so I was skeptical about this pick, even with the strong premise. I still found the worldbuilding a touch flat, but the characters stand for themselves even despite that. 


  • Jaren: I loved Jaren, from his propensity to wandering to his carefree brand of curiosity. In a story like this, having a male love interest come in with naivety and a willingness to be surprised is very nice. This reminded me a lot of Into the Heartless Wood's Owen, another character I really enjoyed following. Jaren doesn't know much, so much so that he doesn't know what to be surprised by when he encounters it. He just kind of rolls with everything, and I love that about him. 
  • Beautiful Scenery: The setting here is both eerie and beautiful. The island itself is lush and alive, filled with the haunting songs of the villagers that mean to lure, hunt, and kill. A poisonous lake surrounds the island, lapping up on the far shore where a little village stands not far off. Mountain beasts and howling woods hems in both of these communities, making the setting perfectly insular and perfectly fantasy. 
  • Forbidden Love: Leelo and Jaren are the very definition of "star-crossed lovers." Jaren is an outsider, an outsider who should be put to death... by Leelo herself. Instead, we have secret rendezvous meetings in a cozy cottage, a death-defying escape when their relationship goes public, and all the hallmarks of a great, daring romance. 


  • Random Naming Conventions: It's really hard to buy into a world where the little pieces don't quite click. Naming schemes might not seem important, but randomly-chosen names can make it just that much harder to accept the world you're being presented. We have Jaren, Story, and Tadpole in one family, for example, and Leelo, Tate, and Sage in another. And these names just don't work together. There's no why, explicit or implicit, to the way these characters are named. Names should reflect history, culture, heritage--especially in a made-up fantasy realm. This might seem like a picky critique, but it just made the world feel unreal to me. Which, of course, leads me into my next critique. 
  • Shaky Worldbuilding: While this book was worlds (pun-intended) better than Luminous in terms of worldbuilding, it still didn't come together. There are a lot of good pieces here, but nothing quite worked to build a cohesive painting, a world full of rich lore and history. There was nothing to ground those pieces. The pieces were there. The picture was not. 
  • Lackluster Revelation: If there's going to be a major revelation in the final pages of a book, it really needs to be quite shocking. There should be a lot of foreshadowing, all the little hints to ooh and ahh at after the fact. There should be building tension to tell you something's up, something's coming. There should be payoff. Without spoiling anything, of course, suffice it to say that this revelation just felt very convenient. Too convenient. 



Fans of Joanna Ruth Meyer's Into the Heartless Wood will enjoy this new world of deadly songs and sentient forests. Fans of Julia Ember's Ruinsong will appreciate this potentially-deadly forbidden love story. 


Publisher: Inkyard Press
Date: December 6, 2022
Series: N/A
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Note: I was provided with an ARC by the publisher through Edelweiss+ in exchange for an honest review. All opinions here are my own.


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