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Poison MasterLiz Williams – The Poison Master- Review

This is a fascinating book, with some flaws that, sadly, can seriously distract from parts of it. It follows two separate strands – on the one hand we see the life of Dr. John Dee, 16th Century Mathematician, Mystic, Magus, and Astronomer to Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth and her Spy-master, Walsingham.
And on the other we follow Alivet Dee (it’s not much of a spoiler to let you know that the last name is no co-incidence), a Apprentice Apothecary, working with Drugs and Perfumes, on the planet Latent Emanation (no, I won’t spoil where that name comes from). Alivet lives on a shoestring, saving all her money to be able, soon, to pay for the release of her twin sister Inkiretta, who has been embonded by the Unpriests, to serve the Lords of Night.
You have to see, Latent Emanations’ society has 3, or rather 4 very distinct strata. You have the ordinary human citizens like Alivet, then you have a class of Unpriests and the 9 Families, and above them the reclusive, non-human and inhuman Lords of Night. The 4th layer is at the very bottom, or rather a bit outside of that pyramid, and consists of the Anube, a kind of Jackal-headed bipeds, who were native to Latent Emanation (or whatever they called the planet – the humans, as usual, didn’t care to ask) when the human settlers were brought there by the Lords.
And the story kick off as one of Alivet’s potions goes wrong, leaving a (rich) customer dead, and now we have Alivet on the run…


There is a lot that is good and great about this book. It has a great world to play on and with, with loads of fascinating detail and connections. There are also another two worlds (besides Earth, or Malkuth, or The Origin, depending on who you talk to), each presented with less detail than the one before. There is scope here for more books…! Anyway, what we also get (and we don’t always with Liz) is a well worked out, engaging, and quite complex plot that takes you in, sends you down wrong tracks, and makes you want to read more. Add to this engaging and enigmatic characters, and you get a very good mix indeed.
The book also has a number of great concepts it plays with – starting with the notion that drugs, especially psychotropic ones, have personalities which can manifest as spirits/avatars when you’re under their influence, and which you can interact with if trained. Great, I really loved that one! We also get a multi-races, multi-world universe based on the Kabbala, with inter-world travel using ‘Portals’ and ‘Drift-Boats’. Latent emanation also has flying objects (‘Scarabs’), transporting mainly Unpriests – we see Dr Dee develop those quite early on in the book.
And last but not least we get Dr. Dee’s mysticism, with Spirits/Angels/Demons (ooh, Aliens, anyone? Or call them Kherubim, as some people in the book do), ways of conversing and travelling with/to other planes/dimensions, and, or course, ‘the language of the Universe’, which can open portals between those worlds, so you can board Drift-Boats between the worlds. A very clever, and well executed concept indeed.

Not all is Gold, though. One thing that really irked me is Alivet’s Characterization, which is so inconsistent in parts that we seem to deal with two completely separate individuals (and no, she’s not Schizophrenic). Also, some of the world-building is OTT, leaving a lot of things only hinted at and feeling superficial (and to Liz’ credit I have to say that I would want to hear more!). But, then again, given that her book ‘Banner of Souls’ was accused of world-building at the expense of the story I don’t want to complain too much about this. What really drove me round the bend at times were some of the toe-curlingly stilted exchanges, especially at the beginning of the book (what happened to re-writing the beginning once one has found one’s stride?), and Alivet’s relationship with Ari Ghairen, her rescuer and the Poison Master of the title. I mean, how much clumsy and heavy-handed romantic foreshadowing can you have until it becomes silly only (not much, IMHO. But there’s much here!). Especially if you don’t really deliver on it after all…

So, overall a mixed pleasure. A good book with a great plot line in a wonderfully complex and varied universe, and a joy to read if you can ignore the niggles above. If you want a taste of Liz at her best I still recommend Empire of Bones, though.


More Liz Williams


Title: The Poison Master
Author: Liz Williams
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher:  Tor
Publisher URL:
Publication Date: 2004
Review Date: 080427
ISBN: 0330412485
Price: UKP6.99
Pages: 470
Format: Paperback
Topic: SF
Topic: Mysticism


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