The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni Book Review

There are days when I question my very specific tastes in the kinds of stories I love, and lately I’ve been drawn more and more to enemies-to-lovers stories set in fantastical universes. The Prison Healer got added to my list not only because of that specific trope but because it also contains another kind of plot I love, healers and herbalists. I was drawn to those stories even in manga and anime form, with series like Snow White with the Red Hair or The Alchemist Diaries. Following the stories of smart women who use their knowledge of the natural world to heal and help people, solve medical mysteries, with a splash of the fantastical has always been interesting to me. The book called out to me for all those reasons, a new world with magic, a young woman trapped in unfavorable circumstances using her wits to help people, and a medical mystery that needs solving. In the end, the book became something more. 

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. 

This book wound up being a lot more complicated than I thought, but it came highly recommended from one of my other favorite authors, Sarah J. Maas. However, the series sits squarely in the Young Adult genre, something I’ve moved away from over the years because of the way plots, characters, and romance story lines tend to not satisfy me as much as more adult romance. Romances tend to drag and main characters tend to lack a certain level of self-confidence that I find to be grating sometimes. This first book had some of that, but as it’s the first book in what is currently a 3-part series, I’m expecting a little bit of slow progress on all fronts. Stories, characters, and the world need to be introduced which takes a bit of time. The plot in this one, while being an introduction to the politics and larger world, did carry a good amount of suspense and emotional weight throughout, something that kept me reading even as I was questioning my interest.

“So you’re right, you don’t need me fighting your battles. But if you’ll let me, I’d like to be standing beside you as you fight them.”

– Lynette Noni, The Prison Healer

There are quite a few dark themes throughout the book, from sexual assault, to self harm, abuse, and drug addiction, but it all wraps up into the overall deathly feel of the prison that Kiva is trapped within. She’s trying to survive in a world where one wrong move can get her killed, where making too many connections with people will mean heartbreak in the future. For being seventeen, she does seem fairly mature in some ways but definitely naïve in others thanks to the environment she was forced to grow up in. With the introduction of Jaren, we see how her conception of her own emotions begins expanding, even as people continue to die around her. 

I did enjoy the trials and the suspense they added to the story on top of the danger the plague presented. It made you try and figure out how she was going to survive something so obviously designed to kill her and be impossible. Was she going to use her wits or would she have to make deals to get the help she needed? In the end, I wish Noni had made them trials that Kiva could have succeeded at without the help of outside magic, like she could have used the knowledge and skills she already had to survive. Much in the same way that the first book of A Court of Thorns and Roses or The Hunger Games handled it. I think it might have made Kavi more endearing to me in that way, instead of having her be saved by magic. 

I did, however, enjoy how she handled the plague mystery. How she used all the knowledge that her father taught her and researched what could be wrong. The methodical nature of her research and her dedication to her patients made you root for her to figure it out. And in the end, you found out alongside her the true nature of the disease and were just as shocked. 

The book certainly likes to keep you on your toes, but I don’t know if I consider that a good or bad thing. There’s not much I can say about events further in the book without spoiling things for you, however, I think I would have preferred some more foreshadowing for some of the twists that Noni decided to take. Some people might enjoy those kinds of plot twists, but I’m not sure I do. It makes you have to almost reevaluate everything you’ve read up to that point, and reorient the characters in a new light. If you’ve read this book, let me know if you enjoyed the twists, and weren’t about to swear off the others out of pure spite like me.

~~Thanks for Reading!~~

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