Lynette Noni, The Prison Healer, Penguin Random House, March 2021, 416 pp., RRP $24.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781760897512
Trigger warnings: Kiva has scars on her thighs, which we learn are the result of self-inflicted cutting. [p. 246] It is sensitively handled, and her explanation of why she did it and how she stopped, is both moving and positive.
There are also numerous references to female characters being attacked and molested by male guards – no details are given; it is left to the readers’ imagination. Older readers will understand that it is referring to rape, younger readers will be left with a sense of menace and unease. It’s subtle, but worth mentioning.
Kiva Meridan has survived ten years in the notorious death prison, Zalindov, working as the prison healer, a position she inherited after her beloved father’s death. She has found that to survive, she must remain aloof from the rest of the inmates, forming no attachments – what is the point when most prisoners are worked to death in a matter of months? If you can imagine the Soviet Gulag labour camps, transposed to a fantasy world, you have an accurate picture. The guards are brutal, the work is brutal, the landscape is brutal.
Kiva has allowed one prisoner to melt her resolve, the young boy Tipp, who reminds her so much of her little brother who had been murdered. When a new prisoner, Jaren, is brought to her for treatment, she discovers that having a friend and ally can be both a comfort and a danger. And then there is the new guard, Naari, who saves Kiva more than once, shifting the dynamic between them. Perhaps Kiva is not as alone as she once thought!
Kiva is yearning for the day when her surviving family will rescue her. After the arrival of a critically ill woman, who is revealed to be Tilda Corentine, the Rebel Queen, Kiva receives a coded message from them: Don’t let her die. We are coming. How can Kiva possibly keep Tilda alive long enough for her family to rescue them? She knows that Tilda would not survive the Trial by Ordeal, a series of elemental challenges against the torments of air, fire, water, and earth that she has been assigned. In the tradition set by Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Kiva volunteers to claim Tilda’s sentence as her own.
There is a flood of young adult fantasy books competing for readers’ attention. I predict that The Prison Healer is going to be a best seller, and deservedly so. It has all the right elements. The story is totally engrossing. Noni has created a strong female lead in Kiva Meridan, with whom readers will find easy to identify. She’s feisty, but also vulnerable. Zalindov is a terrifying place, and Noni has made it feel very real. Top marks for the maps by Francesca Baerald, which are well worth the time to pour over before you start to read the book. The story ends with an amazing twist, and an obvious ‘to be continued’. I cannot wait for the second instalment, The Gilded Cage of this proposed trilogy.
Highly recommended for readers aged 15+
Reviewed by Gaby Meares