Master of Poisons (2020) by Andrea Hairston is an epic fantasy set in an African-inspired world that is facing environmental devastation. Fertile land is turning into poison desert, and void-storms are a constant threat.
Djola is called Master of Poisons because, when both men were young, he saved the Arkhysian Emperor with his knowledge of antidotes. He was rewarded with the title and a place on the Emperor’s council. Now, he thinks he might be able to save the land with a legendary spell, but he needs to find it first — and in the meantime, he recommends that everyone live more simply, to put less strain on the environment.
Human nature being what it is, this goes about as well as you might expect. Djola is banished. This is at least partly a ruse on the Emperor’s part — he saves face while secretly sending Djola to find the spell — but the situation is nonetheless a misery for Djola. He is separated from his family and cannot protect them from his enemies, and his mode of transportation is a pirate ship run by a brutal captain who trades in human beings and burns cities and libraries.
Meanwhile, a young girl named Awa is sold by her father to the Green Elders, a band of nomadic storyteller-magicians. After the initial shock, she comes to find love and acceptance with them, and further develops her ability to travel to the spirit world, the Smokelands. But trouble waits for Awa too; there are those who hate the Green Elders, mostly because they eschew the gender binary. Djola and Awa’s paths will converge in Holy City, where an evil priest bleeds children to power his spells.
For roughly the first half of Master of Poisons, I was enjoying the book but didn’t feel compelled to read large chunks of it in one go. Trying to put my finger on why, I think it’s that the chapters are very short, and they often switch back and forth between the two characters (who haven’t connected yet) and also make big time jumps. This results in the book feeling episodic, which lends itself to episodic reading. At about the halfway point, the two points-of-view intersect, and the chapters also start following closely on one another in time, and my reading speed picked up dramatically.
Hairston’s prose is unique and poetic. There’s a thing in fiction called the translation convention, in which we know a story wouldn’t really be happening in English, so we just imagine that it’s been translated for our benefit. There’s something about the rhythm of the writing here that creates the strongest sense of being a translated work that I can recall ever experiencing in a book that was written in English. One way this is done is with the use of some repeated phrases that have the feel of being idioms or kennings from that other language (in addition to some actual non-English words that are used).
There are some great themes running through the book. There’s the aforementioned “stop trashing the environment” one, of course. In Marion’s review of Hairston’s earlier book Will Do Magic for Small Change, she discusses the author’s theatrical background and how acting, dance, and music are interwoven with the magic system, and that is true of Master of Poisons as well. There’s the way both Awa and Djola have to fight through despair to make a difference. And I also loved the way the protagonists were helped by all the people and animals they had been kind to along the way. (I have a special soft spot for African wild dogs, and Awa’s canine buddy Soot was one of my favorite characters. [highlight here to view spoiler]: Not only does he not die, he has the book’s last laugh.)
Master of Poisons ends with one major step taken but much work still left to do. I’m curious whether Hairston plans a sequel, but I don’t think it necessarily needs one; we have some ideas of what still needs to be done and how it might be accomplished. This is a challenging book: sometimes challenging to read, sometimes challenging to our complacency. It has atrocities in it, but also some moments of sublime beauty. And it’s definitely not quite like anything else I’ve read.
Andrea Hairston’s Master of Poisons is a wildly original and often wonderfully lyrical fantasy based in an African-like setting that faces a self-created environmental disaster, as poison deserts inexorably advance whilst equally destructive “void storms” crop up both regularly and randomly. It’s a fresh world and voice, but I didn’t think there was enough there to carry across an entire novel, especially one of this length.
The titular character is Djola, counselor to the current Arkhysian emperor, though early on his position is revoked and he is banished, though this is (mostly) a ploy by the emperor to keep his own tenuous position and to allow Djola the freedom to quest for a legendary spell that might be able to push back the environmental armageddon. It also wouldn’t hurt if people also heeded Djola’s long-running advice to stop living the way they have been (the whole reason for the environment gone wrong), but what are the odds of that? Of course, any similarities to our own world are wholly coincidental (cough cough). Djola’s somewhat meandering (to say the least) quest takes up one strand of the novel’s two threads.
The other follows a young girl, Awa, who was sold by her father to the Green Elders, a group of gender-fluid mystics, magic-users, and storytellers (Griots). There she meets a mentor, a best friend, and hones her ability to enter the Smokelands, a reflective world of spirits and (human-created) demons.
Eventually, as one might expect, the two strands come together and Awa and Djola work together to defeat the chief (or at least most obvious) villain of the piece and attempt to repair or at least contain the environmental destruction. Interspersed throughout the two main threads are a series of brief chapters from the point of view of several animals who interact with one or the other or both main characters.
As noted, there’s a unique freshness to much of Hairston’s story, from the setting to the magic system to the language (filled with unfamiliar words). Also as noted, though, that freshness wasn’t enough to carry me happily through several hundreds of pages. Honestly, I had to fight my own desire to just stop reading through most of the book. If Master of Poisons had been a novella, the immersive nature of the language and setting would have been enough. But extended over novel length, the plot felt meandering, repetitive, and random, with many events feeling arbitrary. At one point, as Djola and Awa aim for a destination, Djola talks about the journey being a spiral and Awa thinks how tediously, annoyingly long it felt like it was taking, and I couldn’t help but think that was exactly how I was feeling. I liked portions of Master of Poisons, but I can’t say I enjoyed the novel as a whole. That said, another reader’s patience may be greater than my own, so I’d suggest giving it a try and travel as far as your enjoyment carries you.