03 June 2004

The Poison Master by Liz Williams

I have similar feelings as Jim Knipfel when it comes to summer reading -- save me from too much that's lively and bouncy. I usually tackle one of the many classics I haven't read, usually reread something by Faulkner, usually investigate an author whose name isn't very familiar to me, etc. Summer is the one time of year when I can get a good amount of reading done, and I like to keep it diverse. But that doesn't mean there isn't room for a few light and purely entertaining books.

The Poison Master could almost count as a traditional summer reading book -- it's intelligent but doesn't require much work on the reader's part, the imagined world is well detailed and engrossing, and there's enough action to make the pages turn almost on their own. I hadn't read anything by Liz Williams before this novel, though sometime in the last year I read something that made me keep my eyes out for her work (it might have been Jeffrey Ford's best of 2003 list). I'm curious now to read more of her writings, particularly the forthcoming short story collection, Banquet of the Lords of Night, from Nightshade Books.

Clearly influenced by Jack Vance and other writers who have mixed traditional elements of science fiction and fantasy, The Poison Master is at its best in the first third, when we are plunged into a world where alchemy is a true science and strange creatures known as the Lords of Night reign both cruelly and mysteriously. A parallel story involving John Dee introduces each of the sections of the book, eventually tying in to the background of the whole. Once the plot takes over and we are caught up in the adventures of the protagonist Alivet, the novel begins to suffer more and more from being yet another tale of a character on a quest to save the world and find love and happiness, and the last sections become somewhat tedious as the narrative engines grind the events toward tidy conclusions, but Williams is more ambitious than many commercial writers, and her imagination serves her well, letting her play with various historical, scientific, and occult concepts in a vast setting.

Williams has written (roughly) a novel a year since her first book, The Ghost Sister, came out in 2001, and she has garnered quite a bit of attention. Given The Poison Master's strengths, she has the potential to write novels of considerable sophistication in the future, and I hope that she is encouraged to explore the implications of her imaginings more deeply, because she seems to have the kind of mind that could use the creative freedom of speculative fiction to explore philosophy, science, history, and the nature of humanity. That might not make for a book everyone would put on their summer reading lists, but I'd certainly make room for it on mine.

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