The Prison Healer, by Lynette Noni
I was very ready to love this one. A combination of blazing reviews and gushing testimonials from my friends and the bookish community led me to believe that this was one of the best YA books I'd ever read.
This was mostly true – it did justice to the tropes by giving me a kick-ass protagonist hero with a lot of growing to do, access to a wider world of maps and politics, lovable side-kicks and exciting action. I'm still a sucker for holding on to past favourites, so I'll have to admit here that anything Sarah J Maas will still make the top of my personal list.
But I respected the hell out of this book. The tasks that formulated the backbone of the story weren't actually the main events – they didn't need to be, because there was so much other stuff going on. The structure of the book reminded me a little of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (tip my lid to all of those HP fans out there), in that the three tasks are important, but the mystery and intrigue that propels the reader through the plot actually occur in the character development and world-building either side of the main physical action.
I knew from the first couple of chapters that I would keep reading, and I knew for sure on the final page that I would be following the rest of the series, no matter how many consecutive stories would be published. I might regret that vow later (just like my resolution to read all of the Throne of Glass and Shadowhunter novels), but for now ... I'm a keen bean.
There's so much to look forward to – the rebellion gaining traction outside the prison; the growing friendships and life-and-death bonds that a distrusting protagonist is learning to form and nurture; the strange sickness spreading throughout the prison (a very unsettling subplot that hurt the soul during a very real pandemic)! I was super engrossed, and I couldn't put it down.
This book made me think a lot about genre, and the roles that conventions and formula play in creating a 'good' book – whatever that means.
Does a familiar narrative structure (such as this one, with the tasks and familiar world-building tropes) make the book a grind? Is it cheesy to expect a blossoming romance subplot? Is it annoying to have to work our way through multitudes of books in a series just to reach a conclusion?
Or are these conventions there so that we know what to expect when we buy the book? Does the cover design, the character development, the tropes, the action all point towards YA fantasy so clearly that it makes the reading process more enjoyable?
I think it might be a combination of the two. It's bloody important, marketing-wise, to have a clear audience and direction in mind when you publish a book. The sign-posts that lead to genre identification have to be super clear, otherwise your book won't sell. But as a reader of YA fantasy, I'm always on the look-out for an original story that still gives me all of the tropes that I've come to love. And there were a lot of moments in this book that didn't feel original – but can I criticise the book for that?
I love a book that makes me think about this stuff. I also love a book that's really enjoyable to read – so I'll be continuing the series and continuing to pick up YA fantasy books from my local bookstores, because these repeating tropes keep me reading.
As always, thanks a bunch for reading with me,