The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni tells the story of Kiva’s kindness in the face of a brutal death camp and a rapidly approaching rebellion.
From the Blurb:
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.
After being captured with her father when she was seven, Kiva has endured ten years in what is essentially a death camp where prisoners are worked to death in horrid conditions. As the prison healer, she is tasked with overseeing new arrivals and branding them, which weighs heavily on her. Combined with her close association with the Warden, she finds herself at odds with most of the prison population, so she keeps to herself, going out of her way to form as little connection as possible.
This isolation is a central aspect of Kiva’s character as she finds herself facing the unexpected in a new guard and inmate. Given all she’s endured, she’s very slow to open up, but she’s never pushed into it. Both Jaren and Naari take care to respect her boundaries, physical and mental, until she herself is ready. I found this aspect of the book particularly moving as Noni takes care to emphasise just how careful the two are towards Kiva, through dialogue as well as body language.
Another central aspect of her character is the guilt she carries. Despite the brutal conditions of life at Zalindov, each brand she makes and each patient she loses weigh on her. A prominent subplot of The Prison Healer is her extensive search to find the source of the plague, during which she goes above and beyond for fellow inmates that all but spit on her when she passes. Above all, Kiva is kind and that shines through her every action.
Jaren and Naari provide the support Kiva needs to grow throughout the story. Jaren’s easygoing and lighthearted attitude in the midst of Zalindov sets him appart from most other prisoners, whereas Naari’s honour is what shines in her characters. Along with 11 year old Tipp, they work tirelessly to help Kiva survive, both the Trials and prison life.
As far as the plot goes, The Prison Healer is very dynamic. There wasn’t a single dull moment throughout the book as Noni fills in the weeks between the Trials with all sorts of interesting subplots. Other than the plague, Noni infuses life in the infirmary with anticipation, while venturing outside carries its own dangers from guards and inmates alike. I was happy that it wasn’t all action, however. Kiva’s memories, her interactions with others, even just walking from place to place are full of interesting information on the characters and life in Zalindov.
Noni’s worldbuilding is focused on Zalindov. Kiva is barely aware of what happens outside the gates, so the readers only have access to what other characters offer. This was an interesting decision as it allows Noni to concentrate on the details of the prison, making the world come alive. Even when there are few characters present, it feels like the infirmary is bustling with activity while Kiva’s venturing around the prison grounds provides a scale of the activites and the place itself.
A note on the world: Noni doesn’t sugarcoat life in Zalindov. While the depictions of violence and death are not gratuitous, they are present throughout, as is the threat of violence (physical, mental, and sexual) and Kiva’s fear of it. Showcasing the brutality of it all only emphasises how kind Kiva is, and how corrosive unchecked power is.
Overall, this book surprised me. I thought I could predict the overall plot, but I barely got anything right, with plot twists only seeming obvious after the fact. The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni is excellent, the latter half especially blew my mind and placed it firmly among my favourites of 2021.
Editor’s note: trigger warnings include blood, violence, death, self harm, torture, child abuse.