The Poison Master - Liz Williams

Another review for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Update: here is the review I wanted to write.

The Poison Master
Liz Williams
Tor (UK)
ISBN 1405005629

I bought this for three reason:
(a) I'd just read Empire of Bones, the author's second novel, and was impressed. The Poison Master is her third.
(b) A splendidly old fashioned cover line: "Humanity's offspring enslaved on a far-distant world". Sadly, the publishers have chosen to omit the closing "!!!" which would have finished that line off perfectly. They should also have printed it in lurid red, made to look like it was dripping, like blood. And in big, big letters.
(c) A story promising to mix Dr Dee, always a rich source of plotlines, with an alien planet ruled by the "Lords of Night", on which an Alchemist teams up with a Poison Master to save the world and the Alchemist's sister... great blurb. (Oh, there are spaceships too, but none explode - if only it had some dinosaurs I'd be in heaven.)

So, cover aside, how was it?

It was good. Not great, but very good indeed. This is strange one to classify - I suppose the nearest thing to it would be the Planetary Opera of someone like Vance. Much of the setting is suitably lush - I particularly liked the Adorers of Blood, praying en masse each morning for the sun not to rise - but the general feel of the writing isn't the same; it's written in quite a straight-forward SFnal way. Passages are descriptive, but don't indulge in lyricism very often; characters feel and react, but don't sit and contemplate their situation beyond how it advances the plot. I'm not doing a great job of explaining what I mean here! Basically, the setting is great, but you read for the plot, not the scenery.

There are two strands to this story; on one we follow Alivet Dee, an alchemist on a cold, wet fen world known as Latent Emanation. Her stock in trade is drugs, of every sort, and for many purposes - but mainly for entertainment, for enjoyment, a sensuous amusement for the decadent rich. In this she follows her patron, the depraved Genever Thant, around the fashionable salons. She doesn't exactly like the jaded Thant, but he's not the most demanding patron, and she's currently working all the hours $DIETY sends to raise the release fee for her sister; currently a bonded slave in a Palace of Night, a servant to the hideous and inhuman Lords of Night who rule the world. The Lords of Night are reclusive, their control over the population is via the Unpriests; their corrupt human servants.

Humans share the planet with the native Anubes, jackal headed humanoids content to pursue their sacred duty of ferrying each other around on pilgrimages. Sadly, the rest of the wildlife is somewhat less friendly, and a lot scarier...

What neither the Lord, the horrific wildlife, nor the Anubes know is the humans have another use for their precious alchemist's drugs, a quasi-religious ceremony, performed in secret by a random ballot of the population - the Search. This drug induced dreamquest seeks to provide the humans with the story of their origins on this world - Alivet is naturally gifted at the Search, being familiar with the secrets of all drugs and their spirits. All this unfolds rapidly in the first few chapters; a splendid feat of world-building.

The plot kicks off abruptly when Alivet, on a routine job, causes the death of a client, and ends up on the run from the Unpriests. She soon bumps into a scarlet eyed off-worlder, a Poison Master from Hathes, who wishes to help Alivet help him in bringing down the rule of the Lords of Night...

The second plot strand is closer to home, presenting a nice treatment of Dr Dee's life, and how it ties into Alivet Dee's story; via the Cabbala and mysterious aliens of course.

For my money, this second strand is weak, occupying too little of the plot, and, well, the conclusion is pretty obvious from the get go, and while how the story unfolds is interesting, and fun, it feels like a plotline playing second fiddle - quietly, and with ill-grace.

Overall then, this is a very enjoyable little cross-genre novel; part SF, part fantasy, part alt-hist, spiced with plenty of cabbala and alchemical nuggets. It starts wonderfully, but sadly peters off to a muted finale. The Poison Master is still well worth reading despite this. As an aside, I like the author's second book Empire of Bones a lot, but although it's less coherent, The Poison Master is much better written, and much more immersive. Recommended; an novel author to keep an eye on.

Posted: Tue - July 15, 2003 at 01:01 AM