Bookshots: 'The Poisoned Island' by Lloyd Shepherd

Bookshots: 'The Poisoned Island' by Lloyd Shepherd

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


The Poisoned Island

Who wrote it?

[Shepherd's] words drip with charm and grace. I loved letting the language carry me away, even in its crudest moments...

British writer Lloyd Shepherd, author of The English Monster.

Plot in a box:

In the late 1700s, a British sailor does something terrible to a princess on the faraway island of Otaheite (Tahiti). Now it's 1812, and sailors return from a newer trip to the island with a couple of secret stowaways: a half-breed missionary on a hunt to find his real dad, and a special tea that just may be killing anyone who drinks it. When murders begin to pile up, a River Constable risks everything—including the woman he loves—to solve the crimes.

Part history (half the characters are based on real people), part fiction, it's a well-mannered romp through time and addiction.

Invent a new title for this book:

Evil Tea and the Sailors who Loved It

Read this if you liked:

Any brand of historical fiction. The mash-up of the real with the imagined in this story is quite potent...just like the tea.

Meet the book's lead(s): 

This is a hard one. There are so many to choose from! Island is something of an ensemble piece, and many of the characters carry a similar importance to the plot. So I'll go ahead and choose Charles Horton, a Constable of the River Police, who are a group of men trained to watch the Thames as ships come in and out. A gentle giant is Horton, and a smart one, introducing newfangled concepts like "motive" and "evidence" into the investigation of a seeming serial killer.

Said lead(s) would be played in a movie by:

I hate myself for this, but I sort of see Russell Crowe in this role. Mainly because I still see him as Javier in Les Miserables. 

Setting: Would you want to live there?

London of the early 1800s was filthy. It was crude. And it was dangerous.

I'd like to visit.

What was your favorite sentence?

He sometimes feels vaguely and irritatingly angered by Horton's ability to ask the single question which exposes all the hiding places in which information might be concealed.

(Mainly because there's a certain someone who always does this to me...and it drives me insane.)

The Verdict:

The Poisoned Island is immersive and addictive. The world is so vivid and well-built, it is hard to put down. And since the story is a murder-mystery, with layers of history and fact woven together with a healthy dose of magical realism, there's suspense, too, to keep you invested.

The writing is spectacular. The words drip with charm and grace. I loved letting the language carry me away, even in its crudest moments, with the roughest rabble-scrabble of 19th century London. There's no denying that this is a well-written book, with an engaging tale to tell.

But I take issue with The Poisoned Island on two levels. In the first place, there were so many characters, introduced in such close succession at the very beginning of the story, each with such similar names, I needed to write myself a cast list to keep them all straight. This is a minor complaint, to be sure, especially knowing the characters were often pulled from reality, but still. The beginning was quite confusing, what with Horton, Harriot, Hopkins, Banks and Brown all showing up in the first few pages. I felt like I'd taken a wrong turn into Dr. Seuss-ville for a moment or three.

My second issue is the bigger one, and it is this: women are almost entirely absent from the story, which would probably be less offensive if the few women included weren't flat, one-dimensional caricatures. There's the island princess, raped in the book's opening scene, who disappears and comes back as a devious spirit, the quintessential vengeful bitch archetype. There's Abigail Horton, held up on a pedestal by her husband as the very picture of perfection. And the thing is: she is perfect. Smart, gentle, content to keep herself company with her books while her husband spends days and nights away from home. She's a working man's wet dream, and she's so unrealistic it hurts. And then there's Mrs. Hopkins, the sea captain's wife, loyal and dutiful to the end, even when...well, I can't tell you that because it would be a spoiler. But none of the three women mentioned in the book were at all believable, so pigeon-holed were they. Even though London of old was apparently a man's world, women did exist, and I doubt they were all so...fake.

So while I did often enjoy this book, in the end I'm conflicted. Can I recommend a book that seems to devalue my entire gender? Am I being oversensitive? I'm not sure of the answer to either question, so I'll close it with one for you: what are your thoughts? Have you read the story, and if so, am I being unfair? I'd love to know what you think!

Leah Rhyne

Review by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast January 15, 2014 - 9:41am

I haven't read The Poisoned Island, but I can see why you're conflicted. Actually, I can't see why you're conflicted - if the female characters are cut-outs, then that's a flaw in the book. A writer should be able to create rounded believable characters whatever their gender, or the time period.

And since you mention Russell Crowe, he starred in one of the only modern films I can think of which has NO female characters in it.

Prize for anyone who can name it.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. January 15, 2014 - 9:56am

Dammit, I don't win the prize on my OWN REVIEW!!! 

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 January 15, 2014 - 10:04am

Were this novel actually written during the time of pirates and whatnot, it would be easier to forgive the blatant sexism, because the author's sentimentalities would be a mere byproduct of the times. However, given that this is a brand-spanking new book, it seems the issue is a glaring oversight. Even if the author were being honest from an historical standpoint in his depiction of women as subservient to their male counterparts (which, societally speaking, IS an honest depiction for that period), I highly doubt even the most deluded woman never once sat back and thought, "Gee, this shit is unfair!" Mad Men handles this quite well, in that Matthew Weiner and the writers of that show are honest about a woman's "inferior" status in the larger society, but take great care in showing that no woman is entirely complacent about said inferiority. I haven't read this book, but it sounds to me that Shepherd has done the opposite here: he shows the gender disparity, but he makes you believe the ladies were totes cool with it. And that's fairly irresponsible in this day and age.

I couldn't tell you the all-male Russell Crowe movie. I find that guy irksome.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast January 16, 2014 - 10:53am

Master and Commander - no speaking parts for women in that movie (although Paul Bettany does wear a rather fetching shawl at one point).