I was so excited for this story of herblore and hidden magic, but I felt pretty let down by the worldbuilding in the end, which was a shame.
Book: The Antidote by Shelley Sackier
Read before: No
Ownership: Proof copy sent by Harper360 free of charge. All opinions my own.
Oh, how I wanted to love this book! That cover, for starters, is easily one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen, and the blurb promised my favourite thing – a feisty heroine who uses herbs to heal. And I really tried! The bones of this story are good. The plot is perhaps a little cliched, but still exciting, and the romance is sweet enough. I liked the focus on the female MC’s platonic relationship with her male best friend, and I liked that the book focused on cleverness rather than martial solutions to international issues, but what let this down for me was some very messy worldbuilding, which left me confused and uninvested in the politics that were occurring.
Linguistically, this world is a mess. Our main characters are Ophelia, the heroine, royal brothers Xavi and Rye, foreign princess Quinn, and Ophelia’s mentor, Savva. Other names include Azamar, Evanora, Mistress Goodsong, and Sir Rollins – essentially, there’s just no internal consistency. Some of those names are very modern American, others belong entirely to the fantasy realm, and the two brothers don’t even have names with a consistent heritage. This is equally confusing when it comes to the herbs used within the book, which have traditional names, as used by Savva, and Latin names, as used by Ophelia. This I was just about able to get past, figuring that most worlds have a common and a ‘proper’ name for plants, except that the use of Latin is a major plot point, in a world that shows no signs of ever having had a Roman Empire. At one point, the characters directly translate something into English. As in, a character states ‘[t]he English translation for [X] is [Y]’. As in, there is no England in this world.
I understand it’s hard to get around the ‘we’re in a fantasy world with its own language’ while still you know, actually writing in English, but it can be handwaved as long as you don’t actively point out that the characters speak English and Latin, languages that have no right or ability to exist in this world. The use of the herb names also raises questions – at one point ‘Jesuit’s bark’ (cinchona) is used. Does that point to the existence of Jesuits in this world? It would have been better to come up with a name for this herb that made some kind of sense in the world it belongs to. Language is so loaded with cultural meaning, and multiple instances like this were constantly jerking me out of the story.
The politics, too, were loosely explained, and I didn’t feel that there was much substance behind them. The backstory is that there are four lands, and the one that we focus on, Fireli, was hit by a sickness and placed into quarantine, which has been ongoing for about a decade. How would this even work? Everyone has retreated into the castle town for protection, more or less abandoning the rest of the kingdom, and the rest of the world has just gone on without it – but there’s no real look at how this works or the impact it’s had on anyone other than Ophelia, who itches at the unfairness of being trapped. This wouldn’t be tenable for a whole population, surely? The politics side of this book uses that isolation as a plot point for the antagonist to move against Fireli’s unguarded borders, but honestly, I had no idea how daily life worked, which made it hard to really care if Fireli was overthrown.
One more whinge, and that’s that there are several flashbacks in this book, which are in no way distinguished from regular chapters. They largely feature the same characters, but younger, so this is deeply confusing. Essentially, most times that Evanora shows up, it’s about 12 years before the main timeline of the book – but I should not need to tell you that. It should be signposted so that you aren’t spending half a chapter wondering why nothing makes sense.
I think overall, this is a really good first draft of a book. It just needs a lot more work on the little details that allow you to suspend your disbelief while reading fantasy. I wouldn’t say it was bad, per se – there’s a lot of good stuff – but the worldbuilding just didn’t feel finished, and so I spent much of the book cut off from the characters while I tried to work why I should care. It’s a real shame, but I’d be interested to see what the author does in future! Three out of five cats.