Book Review: Master of Poisons

Andrea Hairston

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

published: 8th September 2020
spoilers? no


Award-winning author Andrea Hairston weaves together African folktales and postcolonial literature into unforgettable fantasy in Master of Poisons

The world is changing. Poison desert eats good farmland. Once-sweet water turns foul. The wind blows sand and sadness across the Empire. To get caught in a storm is death. To live and do nothing is death. There is magic in the world, but good conjure is hard to find.

Djola, righthand man and spymaster of the lord of the Arkhysian Empire, is desperately trying to save his adopted homeland, even in exile.

Awa, a young woman training to be a powerful griot, tests the limits of her knowledge and comes into her own in a world of sorcery, floating cities, kindly beasts, and uncertain men.

Awash in the rhythms of folklore and storytelling and rich with Hairston’s characteristic lush prose, Master of Poisons is epic fantasy that will bleed your mind with its turns of phrase and leave you aching for the world it burns into being.

The Empire stole our stories and turned us into savage, barbarian, citizen; they turned Iyalawos and Babalawos into witch women and witchdoctors.

Galley provided by publisher

CWs: violence, death, implied rape, implied torture

In all honesty, Master of Poisons is a case of “right book, wrong time” for me. It was a good book, and I did like it, but it’s one that I think I would have liked more if I had the patience to sit with it and read a little slower. It’s one that, I think, if I reread it and I knew what to expect from it, writing-wise and plot-wise, I would enjoy more.

So here’s some reasons you should ignore my rating and just read this book anyway.

The worldbuilding. I feel like we are in the middle of a glut of great fantasy worlds, particularly in adult fantasy, and this one is no different. It’s so vibrant and real and definitely a world I would want to return to.

The characters. First and foremost, there are hardly any straight people in this, which obviously makes it that much better for me. Not only that, but there’s also consideration of non-cis people too, which is always good to see in fantasy (I mean, if your world is mostly made-up, why can’t you make up new gender dynamics too?). The one thing I would say though, is that the vesons (effectively the group of nonbinary folks) were often spoken of as being a scapegoat a lot of the time, and there were mentions of vie being murdered for that reason. So it still wasn’t a world without that prejudice.

Secondly, the main characters are definitely ones you will find it very easy to sympathise with. Djola starts off as a fairly arrogant, yet well-meaning, man who just wants to save his adopted country, while Awa is a girl whose home is snatched away from her brutally, and is just looking to survive. Add to this a supporting cast of pirates, spies and griots, and you have yourself an exciting story.

The plot. At heart, the plot is one of rescuing one’s homeland, but it also has a distinct found family aspect to it, as well as a consideration of reform versus wholesale change in the face of corruption. It is both epic in scope and also very focused on individual relationships, which I really liked about it.

So, if that all sounds like it would be up your alley, please, do pick up this book. Like I said, for me, it was a case of “right book, wrong time” and maybe in the future I can come back to it and enjoy it as it deserves.

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