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The Poison Master
Liz Williams
Bantam/Spectra, 370 pages

The Poison Master
Liz Williams
Liz Williams has spent most of her life in academic philosophy. She did a doctorate in epistemology of science at Cambridge. Today, she works in the field of educational consultancy, bringing students from Central Asia to study in Britain. The Ghost Sister is her first novel.

Liz Williams Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Empire of Bones
SF Site Interview: Liz Williams
SF Site Review: The Ghost Sister

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Sixteenth century English mathematician, geographer and alchemist John Dee has proven a popular topic for mining of late, providing the historical and biographical background last year for Lisa Goldstein's The Alchemist's Door and Frances Sherwood's The Book of Splendor. He similarly plays a prominent role in John Crowley's ongoing Aegypt quartet. So it is perhaps not surprising that he reappears again, this time in Liz Williams' latest effort, The Poison Master. Unlike previous books, however, here his role serves more as a narrative device, a means of providing a compositional frame or artifice from which the main story evolves. The author uses Dee's biography to construct an alternate history that sparely introduces each section, and is meant to mirror and inform events taking place within the main narrative, a manipulation of the past in order to set up a premise for a fictional present taking place in some unspecified future, and on a world other than our own. In doing so, Williams rather cleverly contrives to integrate elements of alternate history, fantasy and science fiction into an alchemical brew that offers much promise for creative narrative, as well as possibilities for adopting themes and metaphor borrowed from Elizabethan history, science and alchemy imaginatively into her fiction.

The initial opening to the novel is resonant with potential. After introducing Dee and his experiments with a mechanical beetle that will have bearing on what is to come, the narrative shifts to a richly described world that wonderfully combines the familiar with the exotic, the medieval with the future, and traditional fantasy settings with that of science fiction, with a touch of horror and mysticism thrown in. Latent Emanation is a world of fens and villages built upon pilings, often shrouded by rain and mist rising from the marsh and maze of rivers and canals that vein the landscape. Whisps, momes and water children haunt the reeds, and unseen creatures lurk beneath the waters. Generations ago, in a time whose origins have since been forgotten, humans arrived and colonized the planet, establishing a largely agrarian society in the midst of the native population: anubes, a strange, unassuming race that has taken on the role of laborers for the human culture that has risen amongst them. This mixed culture is governed by the Lords of Night, alien creatures that arrived with the human migration, and guided it in captivity across the stars. Part deities, part monsters, they rigidly control the population through a caste of human inquisitors called the Unpriests, along with the support of an aristocracy. Rarely seen, and then only at night, they rule from towering, labyrinthine palaces in the central city of Levanah, an urban environment that blends the architecture and culture of medieval Europe within a metropolis faintly modern or futuristic in aspect, with its multi-story entertainment complexes of restaurants and drug bars accessed by elevators and illuminated by glass windows fifty feet in height. Though both humans and anubes are allowed to go about their daily lives, they are marginalized and ever at the mercy of the Unpriests and their Lords' capricious whims. A form of flesh tithe provides servants for the Lords, and those taken rarely return sane or whole. Arbitrary arrests and interrogations by the Unpriests are a fact of life, and a sense of menace pervades the city's streets and precincts.

Alivet Dee is an apothecary, in part because, aside from cooking, tutoring and prostitution, only science and alchemy are available as an occupation for lower-class women. Somewhat of a prodigy, a promising career has become side-lined by her efforts to earn the unbonding fee necessary to rescue her twin sister from servitude to the Lords. Fortunately her skills have gained her patrons, most important among them Genever Thant, a partner in one of the oldest Experience firms. Though he possesses an unsavory reputation, he pays well for drugs that please his clients. But when one of her concoctions accidentally kills a wealthy heiress, she is forced to flee and go into hiding. Without friends or resources with which to turn, and actively sought for murder, she is approached by a mysterious stranger, a poison master from another world who offers to rescue both Alivet and her sister in return for her assistance. Having few other options, and though wary of her new-found benefactor, she reluctantly agrees, only to find herself entangled in intrigues that will span more than just her own world.

Williams is quite adept at establishing the story's initial premise, as well as creating a narrative world that, despite some broad and tenuous connections to earlier work, such as Goldstein's or China Miéville's conceit of New Crobuzon, carries its own identity. Vividly described and peppered with imaginative cultural asides, in the opening chapters Williams brings Levanah to life, and with characters that quickly engage the reader's interest. References to Egyptian mythology and hints of planetary seeding (though again, there is a vague afterimage of Devlin and Emmerich's film, Stargate) set up intriguing possibilities for what is to come, as does the use of John Dee's story running parallel to the main narrative. And the use of alchemy as a motif, shifting between Dee and Alivet's narratives, creates anticipation that the occult may be used as more than mere prop or embellishment. The only stumble that occurs early on -- and it is a significant gaffe -- is when the author, reciting a nursery rhyme in chapter two, gives much of the game away.

Unfortunately, as the story shifts to the world of Hathes, the narrative's focus begins to thin, losing its concentration in tertiary plots, intrigues and excursions that, while tying in to what has happened previously as well as what will follow, fails to sustain the same intensity of the earlier chapters. The possibilities inherent in John Dee's contribution to the story devolves more and more into narrative device, and the inclusion of alchemical and mythological motifs never assume their full metaphoric potential, existing only as exotic tropes or conceits unable to free themselves of the surface story. Instead, this gradually becomes but another example of tale-spinning, better and in the beginning more originally conceived than most, but that steadily loses its original impetus as the story progresses, becoming more and more a simple feat of plotting. Nor is this improved by the degree of coincidence that intrudes towards the end, which in part represents a rather summary tying up of lose ends.

Conceptually, the author created a lot of opportunities for herself at the start of The Poison Master, and Williams' skills as a writer are very evident during the first third of the story, and to a diminishing degree throughout. The conflicts and setting established at the outset alone could have formed the basis for an excellent adventure, had Williams meant to keep her narrative simply within these bounds. But expectations were set up, both metaphorically and narratively, that somehow are never completely delivered, as if in the process of filling the pages, the author lost touch with the various threads of her fictional weave, allowing both weft and warp to loosen and separate. In certain respects, such an analogy is overstatement: this is a better than average story and ambitious in what it initially sets out to accomplish. But that ambition fails to reach its goal, early promises remain stillborn, and by novel's end it has lapsed into just another yarn, barely credible in its conclusion. Considering the author's previous efforts, I suspect a misstep, and not one that should deter future interest in her work.

Copyright © 2003 William Thompson

William Thompson is a regular contributor to SF Site and Interzone magazine. His reviews have also appeared in Revolution Science Fiction and Locus Online. In addition to his own writing, he possesses an MLS degree in Special Collections, and serves as an advisor to the Lilly Library for their collection of fantasy and science fiction. He is currently working with scifi/fantasy bibliographer Hal Hall, at the Cushing Collection at Texas A&M on the Moorcock manuscripts, and is a contributor to the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Gary Westfahl.

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