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.

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