“Master Of Poisons” by Andrea Hairston: ARC Review

“Crossroads gods are indifferent,” Djola remarked.
“None of the gods care for us.” Awa sighed. “If they exist at all.”
“A skeptic.” Djola touched her cheek. “We bring love to the world.”
Another star exploded and Awa sneered at Elder wisdom. “We who?”
“We who want to get anywhere.”

Djola probably blamed her for stalling on the light bridge. None of this was her fault. Awa bit her tongue on a lie – a Holy City survival tactic. Lies got you sucked into the void; truth did too.

Best to just keep your mouth shut sometimes.

Synopsis: The poison desert encroaches on what remains of a once rich and fertile world. Djola, powerful conjurer and Master of Poisons on the Emperor’s council, is exiled and tasked with solving this problem. Meanwhile Awa, a young smokewalker of incredible potential, is sold by her family to the Green Elders: mystics, storytellers, and followers of the old ways. Under their tutelage, will she grow to be the salvation this world needs?

Who May Enjoy This Book:

  • Lovers of the Fantasy genre
  • People interested in African/Postcolonial literature/themes
  • People who like non-Western-inspired Fantasy settings
  • People who appreciate inclusive literature

Good afternoon readers!

I’d like to begin by thanking Tor and Netgalley for providing a free eARC in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d had my eye on this book for a bit, and was excited for the opportunity to review it.

My knowledge of Postcolonial literature is, admittedly, minimal. I am not particularly well-read on the subject beyond a University course I took once upon a time (though I do vividly recall Miguel Street by Naipaul, which I still love). I state these facts openly, as I feel my review of Hairston’s novel will, inevitably, be put through the filter of my White/Western/Cis-Gender/Heterosexual upbringing and life experience. This is important to note, as there is a great deal of culture packed into this novel which is inherently alien to me, and I respect this. The tales, history, and folklore drawn upon to craft Master of Poisons are not my own. What they are, however, is “fascinating”.

Our cast of characters is fairly varied and distinct, though the two main characters of note are Djola and Awa. Djola is sort of like the right hand man of Azizi, the Emperor (whom by all accounts is inept and corrupt). His official title (and the book’s namesake), “Master of Poisons”, denotes his capacity to cure anything. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Djola is possessed of a keen mind, though prone to arrogance and distemper. He is a powerful conjurer, and holds great wisdom and knowledge of the old ways. Awa, our other Point of View character, starts as a very young girl, sold to the Green Elders by her ignorant father due to her mother’s mystic”transgressions”. Awa is possessed of a keen mind, great mystic skill of her own, and more than a bit of attitude. Under the tutelage of Yari, the “griot of griots”, Awa grows into a powerful griot (wise person/storyteller/peacemaker) herself. A large portion of the book takes place over several years, and details the events which inevitably bring these two strange individuals together. Their interactions, and the way they grow to learn about each other over time, are one of the main highlights of the story. Both initial narratives are entertaining to read, though their paths and travels are very, very different. Hezram, a fanatical and misguided priest, serves as the “antagonist” of the story. This is not a mustache-twirling sort of villain, which is perfectly fine by me, though I must admit to feeling somewhat underwhelmed by him. He simply was not a particularly compelling character to me, and occupied far too little space to be developed into one.

I’m going to borrow a little from Brandon Sanderson here and say that the principal of “Journey Before Destination” certainly applies to the novel, at least in my eyes. This is a story which pays homage to (likely) numerous different cultures and bodies of Folklore; I felt like the conclusion of the story was somewhat overshadowed by much of this and concluded rather abruptly. Did I care? Not particularly. it was still a pleasure to read, as Hairston writes beautiful prose. I prefer not to dwell on/criticize this overly much, as it’s been pointed out lately in a variety of Twitter discussions that (White)reviewers have a tendency to review through the lens of Western story-structure/canon… and this is absolutely correct as an observation. I am not familiar with African myth/culture/story-structure enough to comment on this, and therefore urge you to ease up on this aspect of the text as well. I’ve also seen criticism of this text from other early reviewers who noted that there is an enormous amount of jargon throughout the story. To these people I say: yeah, you’re right. There is a very handy Glossary at the end which does an excellent job of explaining the abundant terminology used throughout the text, but it can get a bit tedious having to keep flipping back and forth between text and Glossary. I would imagine that readers will have a much easier time with this if they have a paper copy, but on a digital ARC it was somewhat annoying. I understand and respect Hairston’s usage of all these terms, as it is very clear that an enormous amount of effort and scholarship went into accurately and respectfully portraying them. However, I cannot help but be mildly turned off by the flow of things on my first read. I feel that this is something which begs a second read, and imagine it would be significantly more enjoyable on the second pass. Don’t let that deter you! You’ll have a good time. I got used to it by the end, and so will you.

Master of Poisons is a fascinating tale of hardship, redemption, and the lengths people will go to for love. Andrea Hairston’s prose is lush, and will take you outside of the tired and overused “Western-style” Fantasy setting. I strongly suggest you give it a try and broaden your literary horizons.

Happy reading!

Order “Master Of Poisons”

Check out Andrea Hairston at her website, andreahairston.com

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