Marinda is a “visha kanya”, a poison maiden who can kill with a single kiss.
She has been assassinating the Raja’s enemies for most of her 17 years of life, although she had no idea her kiss was deadly until she was older.
Her parents sold her to Gopal when she was a baby, and he took advantage of her natural immunity to poison to slowly make her poisonous.
As a way of keeping Marinda on a leash, he makes clear that his provision of medicine for her seven-year-old brother Mani’s weak lungs are contingent on her obedience.
But one day, Marinda is ordered to kill a boy she met just a few days prior – Deven, a kind, considerate boy who cannot possibly be a threat to their kingdom of Sundari.
“Not him! Please, not him!” her mind screams when she discovers he is her target on page 61.
Naturally, she cannot bring herself to kiss him and fails to accomplish her mission.
This, of course, sets off a whole series of events that form the rest of the book, starting with Marinda deciding that she needs to make Deven immune to poison in case Gopal decides to send another visha kanya to kill him.
Without giving too much away, readers will discover that Deven is more than he seems, while Marinda’s position as visha kanya is more unique than she supposes.
It’s not much of a spoiler to share that Deven and Marinda fall for one another, especially as any alert reader will realise that fact by page 18, as illustrated below.
“Deven smiles – a real one with both sides of his mouth – and I stop breathing for a moment.
“My face feels hot all over and I’m relieved when I feel Mani’s hand on my elbow.”
To the best of my memory, this is the fastest ever case of insta-love I’ve ever come across in my years of reading young adult (YA) fiction.
Not being a fan of this trope, it was a red flag for me story-wise.
Marinda herself is a character I have problems with.
To be fair, on the surface, she is a fairly average protagonist of this genre – someone forced against her will to do bad things, but is essentially good and tries to do the right thing for love. But delve a little deeper and Marinda is rather whiny and selfish, and acts quite stupidly a number of times.
For example, Ilya is her literal partner-in-crime – she seduces people and gathers information on Marinda’s targets – and childhood friend, both growing up together under Gopal’s cruel hand.
In one scene, Marinda is trying to justify saving Deven to Ilya, but Ilya says: “No. You don’t get to do this. You don’t get to moralize to me. I have known all of them. Every single one. And you’ve never asked me what kind of people they were or if I thought they deserved to die. Then you get cozy with one boy and you suddenly decide you’re in charge of this whole operation? You put all of our lives at risk!”
It continues with Marinda revealing through the book’s first person point of view that she always thought she had the bigger burden and the greater guilt, and that she never thought about what it must have been like for Ilya all this time.
Although the story mentions that Ilya and Marinda have drifted apart over the years, it is still quite a shock when, just a few pages later, Marinda threatens to kill Ilya if she hurts Deven.
An example of empowering female friendships this is not.
Moving on to the setting inspired by India and Hindu mythology, this was definitely the pulling point for me to pick up this book.
Unfortunately, the world-building is quite superficial and shallow.
It feels like rather than building a world her story takes place in, author Breeana Shields built her story and then fitted the world in around it.
The political intrigue and mythology that underpins the plot, for example, is just given a few lines of explanation here and there, and is obviously totally secondary to Marinda’s love for Deven.
It also doesn’t help that there are apparently showers and hiking boots in this world that otherwise seems to be based on a pre-Industrial Revolution India.
And for a planned duology, the story totally does not indicate that it is going anywhere further until the fourth last page.
To give Shields credit, though, her writing style is easy to read and flows quite smoothly.
Other reviewers have said that they think those new to the YA fantasy genre might find this book an enjoyable read, and I’m mostly inclined to agree with them.
So if the premise sounds intriguing, I’d recommend it for younger readers who haven’t been exposed to a lot of YA fantasy yet, just for the novelty of the Asian setting.
Author: Breeana Shields
Publisher: Random House, young adult fantasy