A Poisoner's Tale - Book Review by Grimdark magazine

Book Review by Grimdark Magazine

Published: June 28, 2024

Article by Grimdark Magazine

With A Poisoner’s Tale, Cathryn Kemp whisks the reader to seventeenth century Rome. Giulia Tofana is a historical figure – a woman of myth and dark legend. She supposedly sold and distributed a poison to women suffering at the hand of their husbands, killing hundreds by proxy. I would argue that juggling murder with a perhaps greater positive impact makes her one of the most grimdark characters out there. Kemp’s historical novel puts the focus exactly there, smack on her moral greyness, to create a compelling narrative of a semi-fictional life.

There isn’t much known about the historical Giulia. Kemp takes that little information and weaves it into a story about poison, feminine rage and friendship. We follow Giulia from childhood through to middle age, to having an adult daughter. She learns how to brew acqua, the poison she distributes, from her mother in Sicily and takes that knowledge on to Naples and Rome, sharing it with a few trusted companions – and teaching her own daughter. Acqua is a family legacy. It’s not seen as a dangerous weapon, but as a way to liberate women. Of course, the number of men dropping dead with similar symptoms means Giulia gains quite the reputation… And attention from all the wrong places.

A Poisoner’s Tale is incredibly compelling. I kept going back to sneak just one more chapter (or ten, if we’re being honest). Despite knowing how the story ends, the tension stays high throughout, making the reader root for a doomed cause. It has something of a trainwreck (in the very best way!) where you can see what will happen, how the story will go but you can’t look away despite your sense of impending doom. To me, that shows great mastery of craft – and I look forward to checking out whatever Kemp writes next.

I found Giulia to be an interesting character to follow. She is certainly flawed, and she’s aware of it. We see her make decisions that are based on emotions rather than logic quite a few times. To me, that makes her stand out. She strictly follows her own moral compass, even when it doesn’t quite fit society’s expectations. In a D&D universe, I’d call her lawful evil. And she cares. For her, it’s about helping women, the act of making poison a statement against the patriarchy. It was interesting to read about Giulia’s relationship with her own mother in contrast to Giulia’s relationship to her daughter. Her friends have become a family – though her role as a single mother, a woman without a husband is not something that comes up in the story.

In that regard, A Poisoner’s Tale feels a touch too modern. It is very rooted in its seventeenth century setting, but divorces the main characters’ outlook from it. Religion plays a big role in the novel, we are dealing with the (Spanish) inquisition after all. It feels like the way faith affects society, the belief in damnation, is passed over for the sake of telling a story. There are priests engaged in carnal activity, priests who get involved in the distribution of Giulia’s aqua. The pope himself is a significant character. There is no interrogation of these behaviours. The novel keeps “the behaviour and belief of the religious” completely apart from the women’s outlook on the world. And I feel adding a bit more nuance in this regard would have hugely strengthened the book as a whole.

Still, I’m picking at absolute details. I really enjoyed my time reading A Poisoner’s Tale and particularly how it blended a rich historical setting with a story that speaks to twenty-first century audiences. It doesn’t overload the reader with details, but makes the historical Giulia Tofana come to life, and imagines her as a person rather than the legendary murderer. Let’s raise a glass of acqua in Giulia’s honour.