I love entering new fantasy worlds. As terrible as I am with learning new languages, I enjoy puzzling out a society’s hierarchy, the slang, the idioms, the power structures, religious/spiritual beliefs, etc. Andrea Hairston creates a fantastic world to puzzle through. I’ve written previously that I’m also a big fan of fantasy based on something other than medieval Europe, and Master of Poisons, with its African foundation, checks that box too.
“We are more likely to deny truth than admit grave error and change our minds. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of imminent destruction, we refuse to believe in any gods but our own. Who can bear for the ground to dissolve under their feet and the stars to fall from the sky? So we twist every story to preserve our faith.”
Djola is the Master of Poisons for the Arkhysian Empire and the right-hand man of Emperor Azizi. He has spent the last twenty years trying to convince the Emperor and the rest of his council that if the empire didn’t start caring for the environment and make the necessary, but difficult, changes, the consequences would be dire. Slowly at first, and then more quickly, poison deserts expanded, destroying forests and rivers and displacing people. But:
“As long as sweet water fell from the sky every afternoon and mist rolled in on a night win, everybody promised to change – tomorrow or next week. Then crops failed and rivers turned to dust. Good citizens now feared change would make no difference or was in fact impossible. Who could fight the wind?”
The allegory for our current climate crisis is clear. Djola’s frustration is one shared by anyone who paid attention to scientists since the 70s regarding greenhouse gasses. No one wants to make the necessary changes, which might require some short-term pain or disruptions, to prevent disaster 50-100 years down the road. But once they start living with the actual effects of their inaction, they become paralyzed, thinking that there is no way to change their trajectory and they are doomed. They still don’t seem to understand that even if they can’t go back to a better time, they can at least work to prevent things from getting worse. Instead, they’ll listen to short-term cons that might provide an illusion of improvement, but create even more long-term crises. Djola finds himself exiled, searching for magic that might finally solve the problem.
Meanwhile, a young girl named Awa already has a significant connection to alternate spirit realms. With an affinity for bees, Awa can make journeys into Smokeland, which creates dangers for her. Sold off by her father at age 12, Awa is all too aware of society’s views of women, non-binary folks, and non-male magic users. Thankfully, she was sold to a group of griots (storytellers), who help her develop her skills.
Overall, Master of Poisons is a fascinating world. Or worlds, when you consider the Smokelands. I also really appreciated that these characters aren’t solving the problem overnight. Years can pass between chapters or segments of the book and characters still aren’t even sure where to start. In addition to the climate issue, Master of Poisons also tackles issues of race, gender, empire, and family.
In a lot of ways, though, this was a book that I felt more like I wanted to like rather than one I actually did like. There were a lot of things that still seemed a little unclear or that I didn’t quite gel with. It’s possible that part of that reason is that the climate situation is too close to reality and knowing that there isn’t a magic spell that could turn things around is disheartening. And yet, the point of the story is that even in a world of magic, fixing systemic problems requires a lot of work, dedication, and cooperation between diverse groups.
I felt like this was a stand-alone book, which I appreciate it. Series are wonderful, but sometimes I just want a complete story in one book. Master of Poisons is the type of book will probably benefit from multiple re-reads. So while it wasn’t my favorite, I’m glad I read it and maybe at some point, I’ll be back to visit it again.