There is a famous garden in England started by an eccentric wife of an eccentric nobleman dedicated to poison. Inside the rows and avenues of the garden, all the beautiful plants are toxic to life. When we think of gardens in our domestic sphere, we think of herbs for the kitchen, beautiful flowers, possibly some fruits or vegetables in season. We do not consider the full range of possibilities that would be of primary concern to a powerful noblewoman with limited opportunities of influence in a misogynistic society. In the fantasy city of Delphinium, Evelyn Perdanu controls a powerful trade empire built upon her mourning veil. Literally, she mourns the death of every member of her family, and keeps her shroud as a way of protecting herself. The manner of death of all these men, and one accidental woman, was the garden, of course. She could be traded like a pawn for a man’s trading empire, or she could look into her sphere of acceptable hobbies for a solution to these problems. Evelyn poisoned her father, her brothers, and gained a reputation among her fellow highborn elites as a woman who can solve women’s problems quietly and discreetly.
In this context, the story begins with an older Evelyn, a lingering power in a city on the brink of destruction. Delphinium is nominally ruled by an emperor, but it is widely believed a foreign army will come and burn the city to claim it very soon. Refugees are fleeing the city, and Evelyn awaits news of sickness and plague in her trading vessels. One of her ships came down with a mysterious illness, and her sailors may or may not have brought a strange foreign plague into the city. Her protege, and her right hand woman (and clear love interest) Violetta is riding with her in a carriage when they encounter a very sick soldier with tattoos that mark him as part of the enemy army. They take the soldier back to their compound to interrogate him as to what he is doing there. Immediately, Evelyn turns to her garden to create a solution that will permanently blind the soldier for her own protection. The garden is the solver of problems, for Evelyn. The herbs help her sleep, heal her and her staff from sickness, create leverage opportunities among other highborn women in need of a quick end to a pregnancy or a solution for a problematic husband.
From this beginning, things get more and more dangerous, as the new plague of the city seems to be running like a knife through the streets straight to Evelyn’s door. This enigma is compounded with the dangers of a policeman inspecting her shipments, potentially her garden, where illegal things were certainly occurring in a city so close to the edge of invasion. The powderkeg that Caitlin Starling builds keeps pushing pressure on top of pressure until the garden reveals itself, moored in a painful history, built upon ruin, and casting ruin out into the world and the city and everything it touches. Evelyn, alone, discovers her true power, there.
It’s a perfect little book for spring, when so many of us turn to hoes and spades and planting anew. Gardens are a healing place, of course, because we sew seeds of healing. We could almost as easily choose to plant the seeds of destruction!