The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: 13 April 2021
Seventeen-year-old Kiva Meridan has spent the last ten years fighting for survival in the notorious death prison, Zalindov, working as the prison healer.
When the Rebel Queen is captured, Kiva is charged with keeping the terminally ill woman alive long enough for her to undergo the Trial by Ordeal: a series of elemental challenges against the torments of air, fire, water, and earth, assigned to only the most dangerous of criminals.
Then a coded message from Kiva’s family arrives, containing a single order: “Don’t let her die. We are coming.” Aware that the Trials will kill the sickly queen, Kiva risks her own life to volunteer in her place. If she succeeds, both she and the queen will be granted their freedom.
But no one has ever survived.
With an incurable plague sweeping Zalindov, a mysterious new inmate fighting for Kiva’s heart, and a prison rebellion brewing, Kiva can’t escape the terrible feeling that her trials have only just begun.
Lynette Noni has a special place in my heart, because her Akarnae series is what got my mom back into reading, and now it’s something we share. It will come as no surprise then, that I started buddy reading The Prison Healer the day it came out with my mom. One of the things we love doing when buddy reading is tossing around theories and trying to pick up on the foreshadowing and guess what the mysteries and plot twists might be. And Lynette’s books are perfect for this type of game we have.
So the first big tick for me is obviously the twisty plot and the foreshadowing. I love the way Lynette’s mind works. There are plenty of clues and misdirections, so mom and I had plenty of theories to discuss. Lynette’s books are ‘predictable’ in that, if you are on your game, and if you are looking hard enough for those little morsels of information, you can guess what direction the story, and the characters, may take. I find this aspect personally satisfying, because I love a mystery. Especially if I can solve it before the characters in the book.
I think in terms of craft and editing, The Prison Healer is probably her best book yet (though I can’t actually pick a favourite, and no one can make me choose!) The writing is very accessible and the pages just sort of fly by.
There are two main plot lines in The Prison Healer – the epidemic that is burning through the inmates of Zalindov, and the Trials that Kiva is taking part in. So a lot is happening for Kiva. Not only is she trying to survive certain death in a series of magic-based trials, she’s also Zalindov’s principal healer, and she’s trying to be an epidemiologist- working out what is causing the epidemic, where it started, and how to cure it. By the end of the book these storylines have wrapped up nicely. And yes, as you may have read elsewhere, there is a bit of a cliffhanger. It’s not the kind of cliffhanger that leaves everything up in the air, it’s more like a tantalising hint at the beginning of a new chapter in Kiva’s life. Also, The Gilded Cage is coming out in the next few weeks, so if you haven’t read The Prison Healer yet, there isn’t long to wait for the sequel!
The Prison Healer does delve into some dark places (literally and thematically), so definitely check out the content warnings below if you need to. There is one scene I found quite upsetting and confronting to read. I won’t say too much, but it involves Kiva having to visit the guard quarters. I watched a spoiler live show afterwards, and I understand why it was included. It was about showing the horrors of the prison, rather than just telling us how awful it is. And I have to admit, it certainly had the impact it was supposed to have.
In terms of worldbuilding, I’d say Noni has done a great job. I have very vivid images of what the prison is like, and I understand how it works. There are hints of a magic system, but it isn’t really explored in this book, though I suspect that it will play a much larger role in future instalments. So far, all we really know is that there are two kinds of magic – elemental and healing – and very few people have those abilities. I also really enjoyed the history and mythology of the world, and I’m looking forward to seeing how all of these elements are expanded on in the rest of the trilogy.
Finally, to the characters, which are the crowning achievement in this book. Lynette has peppered this book with a cast that feel fully realised and three dimensional. These characters are inhabiting the worst place in their world, so you really get to see the range of human responses to that environment. For the prisoners, there’s obviously a lot of trauma. They face gruelling labour, injuries, disease, abuse, and death on a daily basis. Some people, like Kiva, become very pragmatic and go into survival mode. Others, like Cresta, become angry and rebellious. Some choose to take drugs to numb their pain. Some become the worst versions of themselves, and revel in the horrors. And then there’s Tipp, Kiva’s young assistant, who is the only optimist left in the whole prison and a ray of sunlight.
Out of all Lynette Noni’s heroines (there are only three so far…) Kiva is the one I like the most. Kiva is a fascinating character. She’s smart, she’s pragmatic, and she works hard. She has an innate kindness, but she covers it in order to survive, so she seems quite reserved. Noni took her in a direction I really enjoyed, but unfortunately I can’t say more. Spoilers, and all that.
There is a budding romance between Kiva and another character which you could see coming from the moment he arrived, but I didn’t mind it. While their feelings did seem to become quite intense very quickly, I think it’s more a function of the compressed timeline within the book than insta-love. More time is passing in the book than we read about on page, so from that perspective it is actually quite a slow burn. It also didn’t overtake the rest of the story, which was a plus from my perspective.
Out of all the characters though, my favourites were Mot and Naari. Naari is the embodiment of the dark, brooding, silent guard trope (which I love!), but flipped on it’s head! She’s disabled and female and gay! Mot on the other hand is… well, he’s actually a bad dude… possibly a sociopath… but he’s on Kiva’s side, so it’s okay! I (I actually seem to have a thing for bad characters joining the good guys too… think Spike in Buffy, or Peter Hale in Teen Wolf, or Garnah from The Queen of Blood series.)
On the whole, this was a fantastic start to a new YA fantasy trilogy, and I can’t wait to read The Gilded Cage next week.
Content warnings. Blood, death, mutilation, drowning, burning, plague, illness, abuse, sexual assault, violence, drug use, addiction, murder