Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Regular Sip - Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling (Neon Hemlock)

Art by Robin Ha
I’m back rounding out my looks at the last of Neon Hemolck’s 2020 novella series, which is available for pre-order now (out September 5). There’s been a great range of works here, mostly fantasy but with some touches of science fiction, and this story builds a second world rich in political intrigue and some light (but decidedly grim) magical touches. It’s period drama laced with danger and despair, guilt and something new and sinister. It’s tragic, for all that there are bodies aplenty littering the floor before everything is said and done, but it’s also got a hope to it that makes to cut the poison with something sweet, helping it to slide over the tongue and into the body to seed and spread. To the review!


Yellow Jessamine by Catilin Starling (novella)

No Spoilers: Evelyn Perdanu controls a good number of ships and warehouses in a city being slowly suffocated by a rebellion that has isolated the imperial seat. The head, cut off from the body, is dying, and Evelyn is one of the people with money left on the rotting corpse. She’s a member of the upper class, a noble for all she loathes the society she passes through. And she’s an expert poisoner, a fact that’s a well kept secret among the city’s elite, though she’ll occasionally assist some with tinctures meant to heal or to prevent pregnancy...among other things. Her secrets run much deeper than that, though, and when the city begins to be infiltrated by a strange...illness-like affliction, those secrets start slipping free, and her house, built on a foundation of grief, guilt, and poison, threatens to come crashing down around her. The piece is intense and creeping, a supernatural horror and messy queer tragedy all in one. It’s a difficult read at times, as well, grim and full of blood and death, and looking closely at the gravity of pain and trauma and violence.
Keywords: Poisons, CW- Torture, Queer MC, Family, Politics, Revolution, Plants, Infection
Review: I love the messiness of the characters, the ways that so much of this, the whole tragedy, grows out of a mistake by a child. One made in loving gesture. One that led to death, and led to death, and led to death. Part of it for me is the setting, which is ripe with corruptions of its own, from an empress who doesn’t want to surrender her city to the revolution that has taken everything but the one last stronghold, to smaller rots, the ways that Evelyn was going to be sold off by her father, by her brothers. Rot that could only be cut away, poisoned away, but that left its taint all the same. Evelyn has spent her life as a gardener, looking at problems and often people as if they are things that can and should be pruned and weeded. Her justifications, that the things she cuts away and poisons need to be gotten rid of...aren’t wrong, exactly. Most of the people she kills were working to lead to her own death or the deaths of others. But neither are they complete. Because in participating in the murders, she’s introducing her own corruptions, and those are what ultimately lead to the larger tragedies in the work. Her paranoia and inability to trust. The way that she can’t see any good in herself, because she participates in these things. Because of what she accidentally did when she was young.

And yeah, a lot of this is really intense, as well, from the revelation that she killed her mother to the moment when she takes violent action trying to kill the force that is stalking her, that is coming from her, that she invited into the city through her plotting and killing. The horror of the piece grows around this strange illness, this affliction that seems to be haunting her, hounding her. Because it is. Because somehow she opened a door that shouldn’t have been opened, and this...thing slipped in. The horror is the fact that it grows beyond her, a plant that no longer obeys the whims of the gardener, that threatens to outgrow everything, destroy everything. That strips from her the few good things she has, the good that she’s done. That destroys her love, the fragile and queer love that she never even got to fully embrace because she never thought of herself as worthy of love.

And really the tragedy of it all is sharp and wrenching and wonderfully done (as strange as that might be to say). It hurts in a very visceral way, because it should be so easy to avoid, so easy to fix. And it’s not, because of this corruption, because of all the ways Evelyn is forced into these situations she doesn’t want. She just wants to be safe, to be loved, but again and again she’s pulled back to her poison, to her ability to kill. And because that’s the only way she’s valued, the only way she can have the power of autonomy, it creates this cycle, a vortex dragging her down.One that almost destroys everything. Until she can see how she loves and how she’s been loved. How there has to be a different way than kill or be killed. How maybe there’s a way to grow something better, even out of soil that seems tainted with death and sorrow. And the ending is beautiful and devastating, a recognition that sometimes trust is not only possible, but necessary. For healing to begin. For something new and powerful to sprout and bloom. It’s a strange and intense story, but also a fantastic read!


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