Master Of Poisons by Andrea Hairston (book review).

Djola is called the Master of Poisons. The man who knows every antidote and cured the Emperor of his ills. He brought warring tribes to the bargaining table and kept them there to forge a peace that is still in place. He ran with the Green Elders and knows their secret songs and wedded a pirate queen.

Djola knows many things and believes he knows how to save the world from the poison desert and the void storms that grow with each passing day. He does not know how to make anyone listen.

Awa dreams her way into Smokeland, like her mother, bringing back honey and bees and tales of sights few could imagine. Witch women are not trusted but they can fetch a good price. Sold to the mysterious Green Elders on her birthday, Awa tries to map her way home but does she want to go home? To the father that would sell her to save a doomed farm? To brothers who said nothing? To a mother that whispered that the Green Elders were free. Free to roam where they will. Free to run. Free to flee from scared tribes and hungry farmers. From greedy Thief Lords and bloodthirsty pirates and all around the poison desert creeps closer.

The problem with growing up on traditional Western style epic fantasy is those are the stories I know how to imagine. Big stone castles with knights in armour. Leather-clad rangers staring into campfires. Stories rooted in different traditions require effort from a reader unused to the stories they tell. I have become a lazy reader. The stories I read all come on a pre-coloured background which uses the details to make the picture wonderful and new. The background remains the same. ‘Master Of Poisons’ comes from a different core narrative that I haven’t learnt how to picture yet. The elements are all there but my mind’s eye is having trouble forming them into a coherent image.

The prose of ‘Master Of Poisons’ is worth the effort. The book is scattered with snippets of story songs. I did not skip them like I do the prattling of the elves and Tom Bombadil in ‘The Lord Of The Rings’. I savoured them. Some I read out loud. These songs added to the image I’m still building of this world. They felt somewhere between chant and song, more lyrical than an epic saga but less musical than a ballad. They come from a place where knowing the songs of things is the power, not the name.

The growing popularity of fantasy and Science Fiction based on non-Western sources, such as ‘Binti’ by Nnedi Okorafor, are a way into a diverse set of cultures often neglected in schools. The differences in tribal connections, in ways of living day to day, in the treatment and perception of those that are ‘other,’ all can be considered more effectively through the lens of a fiction than through dry lists of facts.

Master Of Poisons’ particular strength, in my opinion, is in the vie characters. The vie seem to be a separate gender with the pronoun vie. When persecuted, the vie are forced to choose male or female and the gender roles that go along with that choice. This persecution appears to be a new societal element, however, with the vie being representatives of transformation in songs and performances in the text and not relegated to the role of ‘other’ or outcast.

There is no more or less description of these characters than any other so there is no description of genitalia to push the vie into one gender or another on a biological scale or both. Hairston’s portrayal of these gender diverse, perhaps even gender diffuse, characters is not belaboured. It merely is. The vie are part of the story just as men and women are. I identify as a straight female. I don’t know if Hairston’s portrayal of gender in ‘Master Of Poisons’ will sit as well with someone who identifies differently on the gender spectrum. To me it did not feel tokenistic or shoehorned in. It felt real.

This is a fantasy novel for people who like to read intellectual fantasy and who dabble in reading ‘proper’ literature. I predict many university essays being written about this book. I would compare ‘Master Of Poisons’ to Margaret Atwood’s ‘Oryx And Crake’, despite the differences in genre and writing style, with both containing ideas that you can’t help but overlay onto your everyday world. Climate change. Personal freedoms. Racism. This novel tackles broad issues and lets them be broad issues against a personal story.

This is a novel that you can wave in the face of people that think fantasy is simple escapism. This novel is not simple. It has layers and meanings and things that I have not thought of yet. This is a novel that seeps in around the edges and it makes me ponder. It is melancholy but hopeful. Throughout ‘Master Of Poisons’, Hairston offers a repeating theme that we each can write the story we want and we can write a new future. We just have to choose.

LK Richardson

September 2020

(pub: TOR. 2020. 512 pages hardback. Price: $27.99 (US); £ 21.08 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-25026-054-3)

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