Fletcher Moss won the Times Children’s Fiction Competition, run in association with Chicken House, for this book. The competition has discovered some excellent authors and books, Janet Foxley’s Muncle Trogg, Sophia Bennett’s Threads spring to mind, and The Poison Boy is another worthy winner, an gripping and original adventure.
The poison boy of the title is Dalton Fly, employed by the wealthy and important to taste their food. When we first meet him, he has indeed just consumed poison and things look very black. Fellow poison boy Bennie Jinks is lying next to him, dead in a pool of his own blood, ‘ghosted’ by deadly belladonna. Dalton though is made of stronger stuff and somehow manages to escape the scene to reach his friend Sal Sleepwell, and an antidote. When the boys return to retrieve Bennie’s body, they come close to death again as an explosion tears the mansion apart, and are then caught up in a vicious power struggle for control of their city state. The duke has died heirless, the rich families of his court are ruthless, and corruption is rife.
Their effort to survive and find out what is going on becomes a search for Dalton’s true identity, and Books for Keeps readers can probably already guess who he turns out to be. It’s the setting and the characters that make this so entertaining and original. The dirty underworld inhabited by the poison boys contrasts vividly with the opulent houses where they ply their trade, both feeling equally solid. Dalton and the gang he gathers around him are as appealing a bunch of characters as you could wish for, and the language they use gives the book an edge and an energy all of its own: ‘Kite’ and ‘Dreck’ are curses, ‘Wet yourself’ is a common cry (for get stuffed) while to make a mess of things is to ‘flog things up’ . And who could resist the poisons, the pastoral sweetness of their names – doll’s eyes, John Crow, jessamine, clotbur – in such contrast to the horror of their effects.
The book ends with Dalton on the brink of another adventure, and with everything to play for so we can look forward to another episode. Fletcher Moss is a talented author and I wouldn’t be surprised if The Poison Boy made its way onto other prize shortlists too.