There are many ways to die in Zalindov prison. Some inmates eventually succumb to the arduous labour assigned to them. Others are slain by the notoriously violent prison guards for crimes as insignificant as a snide remark. Most inmates die within six months. Almost none make it past a year. Our hero, Kiva, was brought to the prison when she was seven years old. She is now seventeen.
Kiva has two jobs within the walls of Zalindov prison: to brand the prison’s new arrivals by carving the Zalindov ‘Z’ into their hand; and to heal the injuries of fellow inmates. Kiva has survived by learning when to bite her tongue and by honing her skills as a healer, making herself indispensable.
Having lost too many loved ones within the confines of Zalindov, she has also learned not to make any new friends. But despite her hardened exterior, Kiva’s a bit of a softy at heart, and a few characters slip through her defences. There’s Tipp, a nervous, stuttering eleven-year-old who assists Kiva with her work in the infirmary; Jaren, a new inmate who proves important in Kiva’s quest for freedom; and Naari, the lone female prison guard, of whom Kiva is understandably wary.
The stakes heighten when the kingdom’s Rebel Queen is captured and brought to Zalindov with a piece of parchment tucked into her blanket, a secret note intended for Kiva, written in a code that only her family knows, that says: Don’t let her die. We are coming. The Rebel Queen, injured and comatose, is ordered to undergo the Trial by Ordeals, a series of challenges that could be likened to the witch trials of the 1500s – impossible to survive, let alone pass. Since the Rebel Queen is near to death, Kiva is left with no choice but to stand in for the queen (there are echoes of Katniss Everdeen here), risking her own life but also allowing herself a glimpse of freedom.
Readers might be reminded of The Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; there’s a similar air of anticipation and excitement as we watch Kiva’s band of misfits scramble to prepare her for the unknown challenges of the Trial by Ordeal.
Of Lynette Noni’s previous books, this is closer to Whisper than Arkanae; the scenes of oppression and violence mean that I’d recommend The Prison Healer for readers aged 14+, especially those who have enjoyed The Hunger Games and the works of Sarah J. Maas.
In The Prison Healer you’ll find elemental magic, a slow-burning romance, and an all-powerful royal family with some dark secrets. It may not break the YA fantasy mould, but readers who are hungry for a good magical fantasy read will find a lot of comfort in the familiar scenery. And if you devour this one too quickly, then luckily for you, there’s a sequel called The Gilded Cage due in October, which is just as well; there’s a map at the beginning of The Prison Healer and it shows a vast, detailed world that stretches far beyond the limestone walls of Zalindov.
Reviewed by Josh.