June 2012


A stand-alone SF book.

Publication year: 2003
Format: print
Page count: 358
Publisher: TOR

The Poison Master begins in 1547 when Doctor John Dee is trying to convince Sir John Cheke that Dee’s large mechanical bee can be made to fly – with ropes and pulleys. Dee is a mathematician and dreams of calculating astronomical journeys. We follow his experiments throughout the years. The book has twelve parts with two to five short chapters, and each part begins with a chapter about John Dee.

But the main character of the book is Alchemical Apothecary Alivet Dee whose twin sister has been Enbonded to the Lords of Night. Alivet is trying to make enough money that she can buy her sister free. She’s even moved to the fringes of the city of Levanah because the rent is lower and she can save more money that way. As an apothecary, Alivet makes drugs and perfumes, and her biggest employer is Genever Thant who arranges for new experiences for the jaded rich. On her free time, Alivet takes part in the Search where the humans are put under a trance and search their subconscious for information about their origin. The Unpriests, who serve the Lords of Night, have made the Search illegal so it’s done is secret.

But then everything goes wrong. During an experience orchestrated by Thant, one of Thant’s clients dies. Thant flees and so does Alivet who suspects that Thant will blame her. To Alivet’s surprise, a man from another planet contacts Alivet and wants her help in overthrowing the Lords. In exchange, the man will help Alivet free her twin. Alivet agrees.

The red-eyed man from the planet Hathes is Arieth Ghairen, the Poison Master. Alivet can’t trust him and yet she’s attracted to him. Ghairen takes Alivet through a portal and into a starship and then to his world, where she can start to work on an alchemical poison which could defeat the Lords of Night.

I really enjoyed the world building. The book has two distinct worlds. Alivet’s home is Latent Emanations, where a large group of humans live, essentially enslaved by the Lords of Night and to their Unpriests. The Unpriests use high technology which is forbidden from the rest of the population. The world has also a native species, the anubes, whose passion seems to be traveling and brining other people to their destination. They seem quite independent from the humans. Ghairen’s world Hathes has high technology which seems to be available to all. Hathes has also a native population which seems to be enslaved by the humans. They work as servants and live is squalor.

The people who live in Latent Emanation know that the Lords of Night have brought them there, but they don’t know from where they have come and they don’t seem to remember much of their previous culture. For example, Alivet has a locket her grandmother gave her. It has a carving of a crucified man but Alivet doesn’t know who he is or why he’s depicted that way. The Lords take men and women to their palaces from time to time, and they aren’t seen after that. The Unpriests are feared and they seem to sort of keep up law, but in an unpredictable way which make the population scared of them. Both men and woman are Unpriests.

Also, the drugs Alivet use are somehow alive. They have souls and Alivet can communicate with them when she’s in a trance.

Alivet is a very active protagonist. She’s determined to get her sister back and willing to do whatever it takes. If that means having to work with a Poison Master, so be it. Even though Alivet is attracted to Ghairen, she doesn’t trust him, and he’s very close mouthed about his past and motives. Alivet is also curious and wants to solve mysteries. While she’s attracted to Ghairen, she’s determined to get business done with before she even thinks about him more, so this isn’t a romance.

John Dee is greatly interested in mathematics. He’s a religious man and he thinks that he’s just using the brain that his God gave him, even though religious authorities call his work heresy. We follow his life through decades and as far as I can tell, most of it is accurate, except that in this book he sees angels and communicates with them.

An interesting parallel between the two Dees is that in John’s chapters, all the people are male, except for the brief appearances of Dee’s wife and Queen Elizabeth, while in Alivet’s chapters most of the characters are women. In John’s time it’s because the people who had the leisure and power to engage in alchemy and mathematics, were male. With Alivet, the people closest to her are her sister and aunt. Later, the people she meets are mostly women. I don’t know if this is a conscious parallel.

The plot advances at a good pace but the ending is somewhat abrupt.

Booking Through Thursday

Who taught you to read?

I don’t remember, of course, but my parents say that I could read before I went to school so they must have taught me.

A stand-alone SF book which is part of the Alliance-Union universe.

Publication year: 1981
Format: print
Page count: 477
Publisher: Daw

Downbelow Station focuses on political machinations and the misery it brings to people. It has over ten point-of-view characters and unfortunately that makes it somewhat chaotic and fragmented. Several different sides are actively scheming and there are also several people who are just caught up in the changing times. Most of the book is set on Pell Station with quick scenes on Downbelow and various ships.

Pell station orbits the planet Downbelow. The planet has an advanced ecosystem and an intelligent native species, the hisa, also called the Downers. The hisa are a peaceful race but sometimes difficult to understand. The planet has several stations which the humans have built to grow crops and work. The humans have also recruited the hisa to work for them.

Pell belongs to Earth Company but it’s a long way from Earth so in reality it operates independently. Now, Union, which is in war with Earth, has taken over Mariner station and Russell’s Star which are stations very close to Pell, and so war has come to Pell. Mazian Fleet is bringing thousands of refugees to Pell from Mariner and Russell’s. Because of humanitarian reasons, Pell has to take them on but in order to do that, several sections of Pell has to be evacuated and turned into Quarantine zone. Most of the refugees have come without papers and are desperate, so the situation is chaotic. Angelo Konstantin and his sons Damon and Emilio are in effect running Pell, and they try to minimize the chaos.

Meanwhile, Angelo’s rival and brother-in-law Jon Lukas has been running the Downbelow dome for four years. Now, he’s unceremoniously called back and Emilio is sent down. Jon is convinced that this is yet another way to undermine his accomplishments. When he hears about the situation on Pell, he tries to take advantage of it.

Norway is the first warship out of the Mazian Fleet to arrive to Pell. In addition to the refugees, Captain Signy Mallory leaves a prisoner of war to Pell. Josh Talley is a Union operative who was caught in Russell’s and Mallory rescued him, sort of. Josh had been tortured by Russell’s security and then been at the mercy of the disciplined but cruel Norway crew and her captain. He doesn’t remember much of his past and requests Adjustment which would wipe his memory but allow him to continue with his life.

One of the point-of-view characters is Kressich who was a councilor at Mariner before Union invaded it. He’s lost his wife and child. A gang of thugs recruits him as their front man. On the face of it, they keep order on the Quarantine Zone, called Q, but also blackmail people and set up a black market. Kressich justifies this to himself that things would be worse without the gang.

These are about half of the point-of-view characters. Then we have a delegation from Earth who has arrived at a very unfortunate time to Pell and some people who deal with the Union side. I’m not entirely convinced all of these POVs were needed. In fact, until near the end I had no idea what Josh was supposed to do. He didn’t remember much of his past so he was a poor choice if the reason would have been giving the Union a human face.

The writing style is somewhat choppy with short sentences and sometimes a little hard to follow. For once, I would have wanted more details and more descriptions.

There’s an interesting difference in culture between the stationers and the merchanters. The merchanters identify themselves with their family name and the ship. When the ship comes to a station the crew can sleep with whomever they want without jealousy but the stationers don’t understand that. The merchanter ships seem to be somewhat reluctant to abandon Pell when the war escalates but they will do it, if needed. The stationers seem to want to grow roots to one place, a station, while the merchanters are happy to fly from one place to another. Damon Konstantin’s wife Elene is a merchanter who is trying out a life on a station. Unfortunately, we don’t hear much about how it would have worked because of the constant crisis situation.

Then there are the Mazianni, as the people in Mazian’s Fleet are called. The fleet doesn’t have much support from Earth anymore so it seems that they’ve started to raid the merchanters to get supplies. They forcibly take on people, too, whom they think are useful, much like Admiral Cain in the new Galactica (it would be interesting to know if the Galactica writers have read this). The warships are named after Earth countires and continents: Europe, Atlantic, Norway, Africa, Australia… The warships also have four raiders which aren’t capable of FTL jumps (again, like Raptors in Galactica). The warships are used to operating independently from each other, too.

The hisa are an interesting alien species. Apparently, they don’t have the concept of violence until humans came to their planet. They still don’t use violence themselves. We are told that they have strange religious practices but aren’t shown them. They don’t really have technology and they seem to worship the Sun. One of the hisa, Satin, is a point-of-view character but we don’t see much of their culture through her, either. They also don’t speak English very well. In fact, it’s very hard to understand them sometimes. I’m also rather surprised that they don’t have the concept of wife (and presumably husband) but they seem to be pair-bonders. (At least there’s no indication that Satin has more than one mate and there’s even non-violent rivalry between two males over her.)

The mood of the book is quite somber. It’s not a light read. Still, I think that the people trying to take advantage of the situation are very realistic. That’s what you do, when your whole life is threatened.

It was interesting to read Downbelow Station after reading Cyteen because here the Union is seen as the bogeyman who must be fought at any cost. Or if you deal with the Union, it’s the deal with the devil.

I participated in Carl’s Once Upon a Time challenge for reading all things fantasy, mythology, folklore, and fairy tales. I took part in the Neverwhere group read and got a bit of a different view for the book. I’m tempted to read the graphic novel next.

Read:
1, Robin McKinley: Spindle’s End
2, Jennifer Estep: Spider’s Bite
3, Carolyn Crane: Mind Games
4, Barbara Hambly: Dragonsbane
5, Kevin Hearne: Hounded
6, Liz Williams: The Iron Khan
7, Robin McKinley: Sunshine
8, Jack Vance: The Dying Earth
9, Elizabeth A. Lynn: Watchtower
10, Tanya Huff: Blood Price
11, Tanya Huff: Blood Trail
12, Neil Gaiman: Neverwhere
13, Carolyn Crane: Double Cross
14, Karin Lowachee: The Gaslight Dogs

Short stories:
Fritz Leiber: Swords in the Mist
DB Jackson: A Spell of Vengeance

Watched:
Mirror, Mirror

Today the topic of Top 5 Sundays at Larissa’s Bookish Life is Books You’re Most Looking Forward to.

This was a bit difficult because most of the time I don’t know when some of my favorite authors will get a new book out (such as Steven Brust or Stacia Kane) or I’m just not yet caught up with their current series (such as Elizabeth Bear or Naomi Novik).

1, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Lord Vorpatril’s Alliance
The new, and possibly the last, Vorkosigan science fiction book will be out in November. But the eARC is out now!

2, Ashes of Honor by Seanan McGuire
The previous book left Toby is a really unhappy place and I can’t wait to see how the story continues.

3, The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest
The next book in her Steampunk series.

4, All Spell Breaks Loose by Lisa Shaerin
The last book in the Raine Benares series!

5, Worldsoul by Liz Williams
A new series from her!

My newest review: Sarah Jane Stratford’s Moonlight Brigade.
It’s a vampire novel set during the Second World War and just loads of fun.

I gave it four stars of five.

The eARC of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is out!

Next Page »