The Poison Master by Liz William
Tor UK Trade: ISBN1405005629 PubDate: June 2003
Review by John Berlyne
358 pages List price £10.99
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William Interview with John Berlyne
Despite having three novels issued in the US and being twice nominated for the Philip K. Dick award (for her first two novels), it has taken Liz Williams a little time to get published in her native country. This situation has now thankfully been put right by the new Macmillan genre imprint, Tor UK, who this month publish Williams’ latest novel The Poison Master.
This is science fiction with a tincture of historical fantasy added and the result is a satisfying and intriguing read. On the planet of Latent Emanation, the human population is dominated and all but enslaved by The Lords of the Night - mysterious, light fearing creatures who with the aid of collaborators known as Unpriests, exercise strict control over society. This regime involves the indiscriminate rounding up of random members of the population who are then set to work serving these creatures in their dark, creepy palaces. Alivet Dee’s twin sister Inki is one of these unfortunates and the loss of her haunts Alivet daily. It could and, to her guilt-ridden thinking, should have been her that was taken. A talented alchemist with particular skill in handling drugs, Alivet is working every available hour in order to raise enough money to have her sister released.
In the higher echelons of Latent Emanation society, drug use is a hedonistic, if underground pursuit and Alivet works as an assistant to one of the oldest “Experience” firms in the city of Levanah. With her employer, Genever Thant, she visits the well-off and administers substances that induce various sensory pleasures in their clientele. But drugs have other functions in this society – in secret, people gather together to ingest different types of hallucinogens in the hope that the visions they bring on will reveal to them their origins. This human colony has long forgotten where they are from and how they arrived, and this long-standing practice, known as “The Search” has thus far only provided shadowy glimpses of what it is they seek.
When a client mysteriously dies during an experience session, Alivet finds her world turned upside-down. Abandoned by her employer and hunted by the Unpriests, she becomes embroiled with an exotic stranger, a Poison Master. Attractive and deadly, he tells her of his plan to destroy The Lords of the Night, thus freeing Inki and all the people of Latent Emanation in the process. It is clear too, that he knows more about the origins of Alivet’s people than the search has thus far shown them. But he needs her help and alchemical skills to prepare the method of this destruction and Alivet must battle against her guilt, her needs, her mistrust and the interference of other factions in order to bring about a successful outcome.
Liz Williams has described The Poison Master as SF Gothic and it certainly stems from a non-traditional branch of the genre tree. That said, structurally speaking this is a tidily plotted novel and the inclusion of sub-plot involving the Elizabethan cabbalist and mathematician Dr John Dee (revealed early on as Alivet’s antecedent) gives the novel as curiously fantastical feel. Dee, of course, is a real life character crying out fictional treatment and Williams intersperses segments of his narrative smoothly throughout. The effect is superb, with the reader experiencing Dee’s forward looking scientific speculations alongside Alivet’s reliance on an archaic and mystical practices. This marriage is handled well.
The protagonist characters are depicted superbly. Alivet is strong willed and dedicated to her work, yet she finds herself a helpless pawn in a grand scheme, one full of suspicion and intrigue. The Poison Master himself, is a character full of artfully drawn ambiguity and the reader, like Alivet, is constantly questioning his motives. Through her characters, Williams explores the nature of poisons - not only the toxins that can affect the body – but the lies and deceits that can work upon the mind and for the reader, this is a stimulating experience.
If you enjoy the writing of authors like Jacqueline Cary and Martha Wells, you’d be well advised to dip into Williams’ work. Tor UK are also publishing her second novel, Empire Of Bones, this month. I hope that these releases bring her the home-grown audience she deserves.
Fine out more about Liz Williams at her web site - http://www.arkady.btinternet.co.uk/index.htm and more about this and other Tor UK releases at
Interview with John Berlyne
SFRevu: You’ve been published in the States now for a couple of years (by Bantam Spectra) – how come it has taken a while to see your novels here in the UK? What do you see as the difference between the two markets? Do you think you’re better suited to an American audience?
Liz Williams: It came about because my agent, Shawna McCarthy, is American, so the books were marketed to the US before we started thinking about the UK. Selling to the UK (to Tor Macmillan) took some time and was a much more gradual process.
People talk about the differences but I'm not sure that this is really so marked. There has been a lot of comment recently regarding the rise of militaristic SF in the States, but I don't know whether this is an actual trend or just hearsay. There has also been a lot of loose talk about a 'British Renaissance' - again, I'm uncertain whether this is actually the case. There seems to me to be some equally interesting material coming from both sides of the Atlantic - not to mention Australia and New Zealand. I don't think I'm particularly suited to one or another audience: I certainly don't find an enormous difference between US and UK fans, for instance, though this does not necessarily reflect the readership at large.
SFRevu: How did your first sale come about?
LW: I didn't start writing seriously until I was in my early thirties. I began by sending short fiction off to magazines and was lucky in that I broke into the professional market fairly swiftly, with sales to Interzone and Terra Incognita. After completing my first novel, The Ghost Sister, I signed on with Shawna and the book was sold about a year later.
SFRevu: Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories? Growing up, when did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy?
LW: My mother is a writer (she writes Gothic novels), so it seemed quite a normal thing to be doing. I was also an only child and very shy - classic case, this - so followed the typical pattern of spending a lot of time in my own head and yes, making up stories. I was one of those kids who sat hunched over a notebook making up their own languages and drawing maps. So, er, not much change there 30 years later.
SFRevu: Why do you write genre? Do you feel a stronger affinity for one genre or another?
LW: Whatever I write contains something weird. It's just the way my imagination seems to work. I have done a couple of mainstream pieces, however - I wouldn't rule it out. One writes what one writes. I'd describe my own writing as science fantasy - I cherry pick a lot. I read a lot of SF, a lot of dark fantasy (but not high fantasy except when I'm ill - a terrible thing to say, but it's true), Arthurian-based Celtic fantasy. I also read a fair amount of mainstream fiction.
SFRevu: You’ve had quite a lot of short fiction published. Does that form suit your writing more? Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?
LW: I have no particular preference. (It's a bit like asking if I prefer sushi or stew…. depends on the climate at the time!) I tend to write novels and short fiction at the same time - if I get stuck on one, I move to the other. I was going to say that there is obviously more instant gratification with short fiction, but given that some stories have taken years, I'm not sure that this is entirely accurate…
SFRevu: You’ve described The Poison Master as SF Gothic. Can you elaborate on what that means to you and what it should mean to your readers?
LW: The Poison Master is a classic Gothic romance. It doesn't deviate much from that form, in spite of all the drugs and the occultism. Young woman meets dodgy bloke, goes off to sinister household, has adventures, learns that he is secretly a sensitive, caring individual etc etc and falls in love, whereupon All Is Resolved ™ and they live unhappily ever after. Frankly, the message that this kind of genre conveys to the young and impressionable is really quite appalling, but I like the form, so…
It will hopefully mean more to SF readers because they can recognise other tropes within it. And there are lots of anagrams, which no one seems to have spotted - maybe at Worldcon I'll offer a prize.
SFRevu: How does The Poison Master differ from your other work?
LW: It's less sociological than the other novels. It also draws more heavily upon dark fantasy and Gothic elements. However, it is more in keeping with the short fiction (an Asimov's story, The Banquet Of The Lords Of Night, is the seed-story for this book).
SFRevu: With the historical, alchemical and cabbalistic content of this novel, what kind of research did you do?
LW: I have a stack of books relating to these areas, because it's been an interest of mine for years - off the top of my head, Jung, Frances Yates, Dion Fortune, Crowley, bios of Dee, histories of Elizabethan and Enochian magic, Castaneda and Burroughs… My late partner spent a great deal of time researching the Kabbala and the occult generally, and there was also a certain amount of, uh, empirical research as far as the hallucinogenic material is concerned. Hey, write what you know!
SFRevu: Can you describe your working practice? How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you write every day?
LW: I plan a rough outline, but don't include too much detail (otherwise writing the book gets boring - like a lot of writers, I write to find out what happens). I do a great deal of note-taking, jotting down thoughts and so forth. I write every day and usually work to a word limit (at the moment, it's about 1K - 1.5K on the novel, more if I'm on a roll, plus short fic, reviews and commentaries on other people's work). I write full time, so there's no excuse not to write every day, and I am pretty disciplined - the legacy of an academic career. Also, I love writing.
SFRevu: Do you see yourself as a writer of “feminist fiction”? Your protagonists tend to be capable and independent women – are you writing to a personal agenda?
LW: Yeah, it's feminist. Insofar as I am independent and (usually) capable, it's a personal agenda. It's not a conscious thing, however. I just try to write characters who don't behave like idiots…
SFRevu: Who is your ideal reader?
SFRevu: What do you think/feel about the current British genre scene? Which writers do you read/admire?
LW: The current genre scene is a lot more interesting than it was - purely in terms of British or British-based authors, I read a lot of stuff by the usual suspects: Chris Priest, China Mieville, Justina Robson, Steve Aylett, Graham Joyce, Mike Harrison, Al Reynolds, Tanith Lee…I'm sure I've left people out. But there are also people who aren't so well known yet whose work I love. Sarah Singleton, Sue Thomason, Sandra Unerman, Stuart Falconer, Jay Caselberg - all of whom I rate highly as writers. Cherith Baldry's latest far-future Venice novel blew me away; Karen Traviss has a novel coming out in the US this year that I'd also recommend.
SFRevu: What’s next for you?
LW: I have another novel coming out with Bantam in the US in the fall, titled Nine Layers Of Sky, which is a contemporary SF novel (again with fantasy elements) set in Central Asia. It's due to come out in the UK with Tor Macmillan. At the moment, I am writing a novel provisionally entitled Banner Of Souls, which is about a far future solar system and a girl who can travel through time. Lots of Oriental elements and much of the book is set on Mars.
I have a sixth novel on the backburner, which will be set in the same world as The Ghost Sister, and this will be - cheerily - all about death and loss. After that, I am hoping to do a sequel to Nine Layers; I'll be in Siberia for part of this summer, doing research and suffering mosquitoes. After that, we'll see - I tend not to plan too far ahead in any area of my life.