A Fierce and Subtle Poison

Book review by
Michael Berry, Common Sense Media
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Teens will enjoy mix of magical realism and mystery.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Set in Puerto Rico, A Fierce and Subtle Poison vividly describes the island and makes use of Caribbean folklore.

Positive Messages

People can change for the better and learn to take care of others in need.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Lucas, the protagonist of A Fierce and Subtle Poison, is not especially likable at the beginning of the novel. He's privileged, arrogant, and careless with the female tourists he seduces. But as he becomes more involved with Isabel and her family secrets, he finds a well of decency within himself, which allows him to put the needs of others ahead of his own.

Violence

Young girls are kidnapped and found drowned, but those events are not described in detail. Lucas has a minor scuffle with one of his friends. Two violent deaths occur.

Sex

Lucas enjoys picking up tourist girls and meeting them for romantic rendezvous. He and Marisol share a few romantic embraces, but most of the details are left to the reader's imagination.

Language

Swearing is sprinkled lightly throughout. "Hell," "damn," "bulls--t," and "s--t" are used about a dozen times each. "F--k" is used once or twice.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Lucas and his buddies get drunk on occasion, but their exploits are more implied than shown. Isabel's father shows up drunk in one scene.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Samantha Mabry's A Fierce and Subtle Poison is a fantasy-tinged thriller set in modern-day Puerto Rico. It involves the disappearances of teen girls and a secret curse. There are a few scenes of violence -- a fight between friends, a deliberate poisoning -- but they're not particularly disturbing. Swear words are sprinkled lightly across the text, from multiple uses of "hell" and "damn" to a handful of instances of "f--k" and "s--t." Seventeen-year-old Lucas Knight seduces tourists and drinks alcohol with his buddies, but these exploits are generally not described in detail.

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What's the story?

Seventeen-year-old Lucas Knight is used to summering in Puerto Rico with his hotel-developer father, but he has never been able to solve the riddle of Isabel, the neighbor girl who lives in a tropical garden and is said to be cursed with a deadly touch. On the day his latest girlfriend, Marisol, disappears, Lucas begins to receive messages at his hotel room from Isabel. Gradually, he's drawn into her world of secrets, especially when another young girl goes missing. Soon, Lucas is battling for his own life, even as a storm bears down upon the island.

Is it any good?

Like a gathering tropical storm, this offbeat thriller crackles with suspense, depending more on mood than on action to keep readers turning pages. With A FIERCE AND SUBTLE POISON, debut novelist Samantha Mabry conjures up an unusual mystery, mixing in elements of magical realism to her tale of missing girls and deadly family secrets. The main character, Lucas Knight, is not especially sympathetic at the start, but he gradually reveals his better qualities as he's pushed to unravel the mystery of the vanished girls.

The novel's climax is powerful and emphatic. There's little chance of a sequel, and it's impressive that Mabry has accomplished so much in a stand-alone volume.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how class and wealth are portrayed in books, in movies, and on TV. How does belonging to a wealthy family shape Lucas' outlook and actions?

  • Why do people make up stories about strangers? How do these narratives help people deal with uncertainty?

  • How does Lucas treat the female tourists he meets in San Juan? How does his attitude about them change over the course of the novel?

Book details

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