When Nikko was a child, he agreed to train as a poison master. He was desperate and hungry and the offer of a livelihood was one he couldn’t ignore. Now grown, Nikko serves the king and has a comfortable place at court as a result. Of course, no one really trusts a man who deals in poison, but for Nikko its better than living on the street. And he has Rodas.
Having returned from the war a hero, Rodas is well suited to his nobility. He and Nikko have cultivated an illicit affair for three years, meeting only when it’s safe and in between Rodas’ trips to the front. It’s not much of a romance, but for Nikko it’s everything. When the king instructs Nikko to kill Rodas, the poisoner is torn between duty and desire. If he refuses the king, he will be killed. But if he poisons Rodas, he destroys the only thing he loves. It’s an impossible choice and for Nikko either outcome is acceptable.
Poison Marked is a short and relatively well-written narrative about a man who walks the fine line between love and murder. The pacing is quite strong and this story flows evenly from the first page. There is some purple prose, especially from Nikko, that derails that flow from time to time, but Poison Marked manages to find its footing after these situations. The book pushes forward more than a few stock characters — the evil prince, the heroic warrior, and the clueless king. As a result, none of the characters, including Nikko, feels particular original. They all serve their purpose, but without much depth or heart. Still, there is enough feeling between Nikko and Rodas to make us care about their romance, despite the fact it’s somewhat threadbare on the details.
The plot unfolds almost like a fairy tale, replete with evil plots and happily ever afters. The entire affair feels a bit tired and worn, but the author saves it from feeling too hackneyed by using Nikko as the focus. Court intrigue through a poisoner’s eyes is a more original choice and as readers we experience things differently. Not everything about the plot makes sense, such as Nikko’s decision and insistence upon [spoiler] actually poisoning Rodas. Given the option of fleeing the kingdom rather than potentially killing my lover, I know which I’d choose.[/spoiler] But maybe that’s just me. The ending feels both well paced and forced all at once. It unfolds naturally and with the same smoothness as the rest of Poison Marked. But the actual resolution is fairly ordinary and uninspired. There is no world building here and despite the short length of the story, even a few lines about the world in which Nikko and Rodas live would have been appreciated. Without even an attempt at world building, this novella falls into a murky area that might be fantasy or might just be “olden times.”
Poison Marked has a smooth easiness that made reading it enjoyable. It’s not perfect and on the whole the plot isn’t particularly original. Despite this, if you’re looking for something quick and easy, then Poison Marked might be a good choice.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.