The Prison Healer trilogy by Lynette Noni
“You say you became the darkness, that it consumed you … but … I’ve never met anyone who shines as brightly as you do.” (The Gilded Cage)
Lynette Noni has written exceptionally popular and high-selling fantasy series, the Medoran Chronicles and the Whisper duology. Here I’ll be focusing on The Prison Healer, her trilogy with Penguin Random House Australia, which is even better. I’ve read and been captivated by the first two books in the trilogy, The Prison Healer and The Gilded Cage. The final, The Blood Traitor, is published in June 2022. How will I, and everyone else who is avidly following this trilogy, wait that long?
Lynette’s world building is exemplary and keeps us fully immersed and believing, and her plots are gripping, with completely unexpected twists. We care desperately about her characters: we agonise about what they must endure and rejoice in their times of happiness and joy.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Lynette.
How has your writing developed since the Medoran Chronicles?
The Medoran Chronicles was my starting point as an author—the first book, Akarnae, was actually the first novel I ever wrote. Ever since then, I’ve always endeavoured to learn more with each new book I write. With The Prison Healer trilogy in particular, I had the privilege of working with not one, but two phenomenal editors: Emilia Rhodes at Clarion Teen (USA), and Zoe Walton at PRH (Aus). Both Emilia and Zoe have been with me from the very first book in this trilogy, combining their notes and ideas, and I’m so grateful for everything they’ve taught me along the way.
Is there any significance or underlying meaning to ‘Kiva’, the name of your major protagonist, or is it a name that simply appeals to you and suits her?
I knew coming into this series that I wanted to use names that would fit well in a fantasy world, but wouldn’t be difficult to read. This meant keeping things simple while still finding perfect names for the characters. So there’s no specific significance to Kiva’s name other than that it “felt” right for her, and is easy to read. The same is true for the other main characters (Jaren, Tipp, Mot, Cresta and Rooke, for example). There are so many fantasy books where characters have complicated names, and it never fails to trip me up mentally as I wonder if I’m pronouncing them correctly, so I wanted to avoid that as much as possible with this series, while still keeping the otherworldly feel.
Healing is an integral part of these books. Why have you made Kiva a healer?
So often we hear the phrase “strong female protagonist” (especially in YA), and this is largely esteemed in a physical sense. Oh, look, she can wield a sword! Oh, look, she knows martial arts! Oh, look, she has powerful magic! These are all great, and I’ve certainly incorporated them across all my books, but I wanted to do something different with Kiva. My aim was to focus on her inner strength, rather than her physical strength—the characteristics that make her not just a healer, but also human. One of those characteristics is her compassion. The first book opens with her having been locked in a death prison for ten years, and yet, despite being surrounded by the worst kinds of criminals, she has still retained her humanity and does everything in her power to treat their ailments and make their lives better, all while showing them kindness. She might not have any physical fighting skills, but her mental and emotional skills more than make up for that, as does her will to survive. She is without a doubt a “strong female protagonist,” and she manages that not as a warrior, but as a healer.
Jaren is an enigmatic character: beautiful, kind and seemingly trustworthy. Does he have any flaws? If so, could you please reveal one?
Ha! I love that you think Jaren is flawless! Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Like with Kiva, I wanted to do something a little different with Jaren. There’s an upward trend in YA fiction for the “enemies to lovers” trope (which I love to read!), but for this series, that was something I wanted to avoid. Instead, I sought to offer a healthy, even sweet relationship progression with a male lead who is physically and mentally strong but also wholesome and full of heart. The flipside of that is that I would almost say Jaren is too kind and trusting, especially when it comes to certain people he cares about. That, of course, means he then has to face the consequences of having such blind trust, which then leads to the question of how forgiving he is. These are just some of the things he grapples with as a character—and that make him all the more “human.”
Your protagonists sizzle with a slowly burning romantic awareness. What is your philosophy about writing romance?
Fun fact about me: I loathe insta-love. I just can’t stand it. Insta-attraction is great, as is insta-chemistry, insta-flirting, and insta-anything-other-than-love. I’m all in for those. But I find it incredibly frustrating and so unrealistic when two characters meet and are suddenly head over heels obsessed with other, especially when it means any kind of plot is forgotten. (Oh, you need to save the world? Bad luck you’re too worried about what you’ll wear on your date…)
With my characters, in all of my books, I’m always deliberate about creating a foundation for their relationships long before they ever have any physical intimacy, even just a kiss. They need to get to know each other. They need to actually like each other, not just because of lust, but because they’ve been through things together and have overcome numerous personal challenges (and their banter needs to be on point—humour is a great relationship builder). Fictional or not, these are little human beings that I’m creating, and the relationships between them need to be realistic, whether those are romantic relationships or platonic relationships. But especially when it comes to writing romance, I’m allllllllll about the slow build. Give me long looks and secret smiles and soft touches and t.e.n.s.i.o.n, and I’m a very happy author (and reader).
Kiva uses a written code to communicate with her family, particularly in The Prison Healer. How would you describe the code?
As you’ve said, the code is something Kiva uses to communicate with her family, since no information from the outside world is allowed into Zalindov Prison, so she finds a way to have the letters snuck in and out. This code is something I created from scratch, a relatively simple substitution code, and it was a lot of fun to come up with it and use it for these secret messages!
Although book 2, The Gilded Cage, is not set inside a prison like The Prison Healer, I found it to have an even more ominous feel because of what is at threat. The title alludes to some of this. How did you create this atmosphere?
Given the way the first book ends, it made sense to carry that ominous feeling over into the second book, and then attempt to deepen it. While Kiva might be in a different place, she’s still the same person she’s been for the last ten years, with the same goals, but new revelations mean she’s now more torn than ever before. This creates a treacherous mix of feelings within her, and since the books are written from her perspective, this internal warring bleeds out through the pages (so to speak). Added to that is the very real danger she’s in thanks to the many secrets that she’s keeping, ultimately creating the perfect recipe for a tense page-turner.
… But despite all of this, I still sought to inject a great deal of light and hope into this book, much of which is done through Kiva’s relationships with her fellow characters, like the perpetually sunny Tipp, the arrogantly charming Caldon (a firm fan favourite), and the chocabun-loving Rhessinda, among others. Dark and light—it’s all about balance.
There is much darkness in your story. Where have you shown light?
As I mentioned earlier, there has to be a balance between the dark and the light. In The Prison Healer, for example, the setting itself—a death prison—is a place out of nightmares, and that automatically makes it an incredibly dark story. So one thing I used to help balance that is the characters and their interactions with each other. Tipp in particular is a little ray of sunshine into the darkness—an 11-year-old boy who skips everywhere he goes and is almost always smiling and finding the goodness in life. He brightens up Kiva’s world just by being alive. So little things like that always help to bring that balance between light and dark.
Overall, my aim when writing this series was to show that even when things are dark in our own worlds, there can always be moments of light, of hope. There’s a quote in The Blood Traitor that summarises this perfectly, calling attention to our perspective and challenging us to remember that dark times, while traumatic, are also fleeting: “We can look at the darkness and let it consume us, or we can recognise that it’s only temporary, trusting that once it passes, the light will return.”
Revenge and vengeance are integral in your plot. How have you incorporated forgiveness?
Given that the vengeful focus of the first two books resulted in devastating consequences, I can understand why you’re asking this question (eeek). But to avoid the risk of spoilers for the final book, instead of offering specifics about forgiveness (or lack thereof), all I’ll say is, these characters have some challenging journeys—physical and emotional—ahead of them! *Nervous sweat*
How have you brought humour into these stories?
I use humour frequently between my characters, especially in dialogue, since I think it really helps to strengthen their relationships (romantic and platonic). I also like to write humorous reactions to things, whether it’s in the delivery of speech when paired with an action, or a cute scene (often with an animal), or any number of other things. Everyone has a different sense of humour, so when I need a moment of levity for my characters, I just try to write things that entertain me and hope that readers will feel the same.
Could you give us a clue about something that happens in The Blood Traitor or how it differs from the other two books in the trilogy?
It has a quest! A QUEST! I love quests!! *Heart eyes* There’s also a lot of action, and a lot of physical and emotional challenges (and growth) for all of the characters, but especially Kiva. It was the hardest book I’ve ever written, but it’s also the one I’m most proud of, and I’m so thrilled with how it turned out. I absolutely can’t wait for readers to find out what happens in this final instalment of the series!
What is an example of where you’ve left a ‘gap’, something the reader needs to fill in or imagine for themselves, in this trilogy?
I would hope that by the end of the trilogy, there aren’t any lingering questions or confusions over the larger plot points. There will always be little threads of things that could potentially be turned into spinoffs—this is just a natural part of storytelling for most authors. One example that comes to mind is that there are some characters whose backstories I would love to know more about, and others that I would love to see what happens in their futures. (I won’t say who, since I don’t want to risk giving away spoilers!) So there will always be little things like that left open that I may or may not delve into one day. But they’re not the kinds of things that would leave gaping holes or frustrating uncertainties for readers. I always try to make sure that every series I finish has no loose ends once they’re all wrapped up!
What is your connection with other YA queens of fantasy writing Sarah J. Maas and Jessica Townsend?
I’ve been friends with Sarah ever since she came to Australia for a book tour in 2015—I had just released my first novel and she was here promoting her fourth (or fifth?), and we hit it off instantly and then stayed in touch once she went back to the States. She is a constant source of encouragement and support, and I absolutely adore her!
As for Jess, we met a few years later—I think around 2018—and we also became fast friends. In a bizarre coincidence, she actually lives just down the road from me on the Sunshine Coast, so we try to see each other in person as much as our various deadlines allow. (We aim for weekly, but I don’t think we’ve actually ever managed that, lol.)
(Read my interview with Jessica Townsend at PaperbarkWords)
Thank you for your thoughtful and generous responses, Lynette. I love how you explore so many important ideas in these novels: family, loyalty, trust and more, and then integrate them into stunning stories. You are a queen of YA fantasy yourself!