[Review] _The Poison Master_ Liz Williams

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David Kennedy

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Jul 14, 2003, 6:47:04 PM7/14/03
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_The Poison Master_
Liz Williams
Tor (UK)
1405005629

I bought this for three reasons:
(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.

--
David Kennedy
www.dkennedy.org

David Kennedy

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Jul 14, 2003, 6:58:59 PM7/14/03
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David Kennedy <da...@dkennedy.org> wrote:
> _The Poison Master_
> Liz Williams
> Tor (UK)
> 1405005629

...and here's the review I was trying to write:
http://www.sfsite.com/04b/pm150.htm
(William Thompson on the SF Site, er, site.)
--
David Kennedy
www.dkennedy.org

William December Starr

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Jul 21, 2003, 2:09:46 AM7/21/03
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In article <3f1332e8$0$15040$cc9e...@news.dial.pipex.com>,
da...@dkennedy.org said:

> 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 -

People who've _seriously_ learned to live with disappointment,
I take it...

-- William December Starr <wds...@panix.com>

David Kennedy

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Jul 21, 2003, 2:39:50 PM7/21/03
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I think many of them are secretly in it just for the cool robes.
--
David Kennedy
www.dkennedy.org

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