REVIEW: The Poisons We Drink by Bethany Baptiste

It is brilliant to see grimdark main characters in places you don’t expect them. Bethany Baptiste’s debut novel, The Poisons We Drink is one of those stories. The cover is bright pink and shows a pretty girl. So, very much not where you’d expect to find a brilliant morally grey main character – but Venus ticks all the boxes. In a world where magic users are systematically discriminated against, she ekes out a living brewing love potions, in an environment closer to a crime syndicate than to any romantic notions of family and love.

The Poisons We DrinkAfter her mother’s murder, Venus needs to pick up the pieces, make sure her family – especially her sister Janus – are safe. And that means brewing love potions for the rich elite who can afford them. These potions are highly illegal – but Venus is damn good at covering all her bases. Until the Grand Witcher decides that Venus is worth too much to leave her alone. And so, Venus gets pulled into a political underbelly, both one that works subtly to effect change and a more revolutionary one. Murder, manipulation and rebellion are all key parts of this story.

From a grimdark perspective, what really made The Poisons We Drink stand out is its approach to love. Yes, romantic love exists – and plays a part in this story – but love is much broader, and a powerful tool. Venus’ potions can make long estranged family members reunite, relationships and affection often turned into manipulation. The book notes eight types of love, ranging from LUDUS, uncommited love to MANIA, obsessive love or PEITHO, love of ideas, used for persuasion. Love is real, but despite its bright pink exterior, this digs deep into what it is, how love can be used – and shows great cynicism. Love is a weakness, and The Poisons We Drink exploits that to everyone’s detriment.

The Poisons We Drink is thrilling, fast-paced and provides a great reading experience. In many ways, it’s got the pacing of a good Marvel film, lots of action, always a lot going on, but also full of moments you get to know the characters. It is a strong debut – and one that will resonate well with those who have known unfairness and discrimination. It steps away from the reasons our society would consider discriminatory, and instead uses magic and potions as an allegory. This is very effective and will highlight the similarities to even the more unaware audiences. In the introduction, the author writes that she wrote this in reaction to the election of Donald Trump. That rage, that helplessness and desperation, is at the core of The Poisons We Drink. Venus knows that she can’t win, and is selfish enough to try anyway. Her aims, her vengeance shine through in the way she manipulates others, while being used as a tool by people more powerful than her. The Poisons We Drink is all female rage, and I’m here for it.

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Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne can usually be found with her nose in a book or two. Most of her life revolves around words, be that reading, writing, or editing. You can find more of her ramblings over on www.libridraconis.com, where she also reviews YA books and more lighthearted Fantasy and Science Fiction, as @FLSchwizer on Twitter, and @libri_draconis on Instagram. If you're curious about what she is currently reading, check out www.goodreads.com/libridraconis.