Cover Image: Master of Poisons

Master of Poisons

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Member Reviews

We interviewed Andrea Hairston about Master of Poisons in Episode 392 of The Skiffy and Fanty Show.

I'll admit that I had some difficulty with this because I kept thinking I was missing something. Turns out that I was. There's a stylistic thing here that Hairston talked about in our interview, and I need to do a reread in 2023 to better grapple with it (not a bad thing; I like a challenge). Good stuff!
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A difficult book to read, with a lot of dense world building and not quite enough character focus. I did enjoy the plot, but I had to force myself to finish and returned to it after some time away, and found slogging through a lot of the book a chore. I'll be honest, I skim read some sections just to move on to the actual plot. With the correct editing, this could have been much better, as you could cut it in half. Not reviewed publicly, but thank you for the opportunity.
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This book is a work of literary genius. The wording was beautiful, and the story moved at just the right pace. I got the impression that the narrative was being told to me by someone who was weaving it all around me. I felt like I was whisping about the smoke lands alongside the actors. This was a completely fresh and original environment, and it took me a while to get my head around it. It was a very enjoyable book to read.

Each every character has their own personality and perspective. It seemed as if Awa were a much younger lady, just starting out in life (after she began her journey as a child). The violence depicted in the pirate scenes was consistent with the lifestyle depicted and wasn't gratuitous. I also appreciated the inclusion of lgbtq+ characters and would like to see more of it in future works of fantasy.

The book's politics were also written quite nicely. No character ever appeared to be invulnerable to the story's twists, and I was always aware of the stakes. The book struck a nice mix between political intrigue and fantastical elements. A human connection was formed with me as a reader, and the experience was quite realistic.
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I think this was a case of me just not gelling with the book more than anything. I really struggled to get into the story and ended up DNF'ing it at around 35%.
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This book has such an interesting concept and I loved the world that is was building. However, I struggled to connect to the characters or really get into the plot. It’s dense world building, with a lot more telling rather than showing upfront. I was not able to get past about an hour and a half of reading (which usually translates into 120-150 pages for me) on my Kindle. I’m setting to the side for now and will not review publicly. .
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Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC copy.

I want to preface this by saying that if you're looking for a slow-burn type of fantasy with an interesting payoff, this would be your book. But please be reminded, this book is slow! Like Black Leopard, Red Wolf, but a little less verbose and winding.

Steeped in African fantasy and mythology, Master of Poisoms was a beautiful story of loyalty, self-discovery, revenge, and self-reliance. This story is also extremely diverse as there are non-binary characters that are fully realized. I loved Yari and vie's confidence, as well as vie's flaws. Djola is a conflicted man who wants to serve his king, but also protect his family. And then there's Awa, curious and headstrong, who has always been capable to traveling into the Shadowlands, but once her father sells her, she her life takes a drastic turn.

Thus book is slow, but I found it enjoyable. Had I not been ill, I would have finished this long ago.
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I received a free digital copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The plot and the cover were quite interesting. But I can’t force myself to finish this book.

I got confused for half of it, and it didn’t convince me.
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DNF at 7% 

I started this one back in October last year, but no matter how many times I have tried to read it, I couldn't get into it at all. I read other books, thinking that if I will give it more time then I will be able to get into it. Not even a chance. Ultimately, considering the fact that I was able to listen some audiobooks in the last maybe half year or so, I decided to try the audio while doing my daily sketchbook drawing. Oh boy... VERY bad decision! The voice of the male character was ok, but the female one?! 😫 Cringe! Almost no intonation, something like a robotic voice, and I was kind of forced to listen at 1.5 speed because she was speaking so damn slow! It's really a shame, because I was so interested in reading this book, and when I got approved for it on NetGalley I almost screamed in excitement!
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In a land where poisonous storms are overtaking crops and making livable areas unbearable, politician Djola is frustrated by the many years his recommendations of moderation and conversation have been ignored. Too late for these methods and desperate for a solution, his king banishes Djola from the kingdom, telling him he's not allowed to return until he tracks down a powerful magical spell that can drive the poison from the land. Meanwhile, Awa, a young farm girl, has been sold to a group of nomadic magicians, where she begins learning to be a powerful griot and speaker for the people and the land. Over the course of several years, Awa and Djola's paths become intertwined, as both hope to solve the ills of the land by ending the corrupting magic of the upper class.

This richly told story weaves African folklore into a creative new world, all the while offering some refreshing insights on power, corruption, the environment, and the role of everyday people in all of the above.
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I'm about a quarter way through the book and unfortunately, find my attention wandering. This could easily be an issue of me, not the book, as I've had a lot of trouble tracking and getting into new epic fantasy series lately. I think my focus is off, and has been for a while now. So don't let this put you off from reading the book if you're interested in the premise! It just didn't work for me as there wasn't anything in the story that kept me riveted enough to continue.
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I really tried this book. I really did. I got around 40% in to it, but it just confused me again and again. I had some problems with keeping up with all the characters and the nick names for them. I really really wanted to love this, cause' the premise sounded awesome and something that I would enjoy. But I'm sorry, it got over my head. DNF.
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This book had an amazing world that I absolutely loved to read about! There are a variety of characters and locations, and it created a wonderful element for the story to live in! It was an exciting story that kept me wondering what was going to happen next. I think there were times where I became less interested in what was happening, but the story always came back around. Overall, it was a good story that fantasy readers will enjoy!

I was provided a gifted copy of this book for free. I am leaving my review voluntarily.
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Tentative Star Rating Of 3.0/5.0 Stars, (required by NetGalley), which may change after I have reread the book.

MASTERS OF POISONS is a DNF for me at the fifty-six percent mark in the eBook. I purchased and listened to the Audiobook, hoping to get past the midway point, but as of yet, I haven't. 

I love the story and worldbuilding in this book to the point I not only want but need to know how it ends. 

I need to know how Awa and Djola’s lives connect. Is Awa key to what Djola is searching for? 

I am definitely rereading this book!

Thank you, NetGalley and Tor Publishing, for loaning me an eGalley of MASTER OF POISONS in exchange for an honest review.
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Interviewed the author at https://skiffyandfanty.com/podcasts/392andreahairston/ about this epic and lyrical fantasy that weaves story, imagery, and rhythm together in a way unseen in traditional western fantasy. Cannot recommend highly enough.
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There is so much to love about Master of Poisons that, although I am DNF’ing it for now, I hope to come back to it one day when I’m able to give this novel the attention it deserves. The world-building in Master of Poisons is so complex and beautifully rendered. Plus I love the parallels with global warming. And, although I haven’t quite been able to fully figure it out, the magical system is so intriguing. Plus the diversity is absolutely incredible! 

However, this is a dense book with very descriptive and lyrical writing. All of that combines to make this very much a slow burn fantasy. And, although I like the characters, I haven’t quite been able to connect with them and have been struggling to get through this book. I constantly feel like I’m missing pieces of the story but am not quite sure how I missed them. 

I do fully believe that this is a case of “it’s me, not the book” so if Master of Poisons sounds good to you, I would still recommend giving this one a chance!
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I feel sad about this but this is going to be my first DNF. I've been pushing myself to read it, I kind of like the characters, the diversity, the non binary ones, but I can't get involved.
Maybe it's the writing, maybe a bad moment, but I decided not to push myself anymore.
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A dense, rich adventure which puts its characters on very different, satisfying journeys

Master of Poisons took me approximately forever to read. Very little of that is the book's fault: while Andrea Hairston's writing style does require more attention than some, packing a great deal of worldbuilding and information into deceptively simple but poetic prose, its certainly no more than I would expect to give to an author of this calibre. It's not like Master of Poisons doesn't open with some super intriguing stuff: right off the bat, we've got poison deserts, scheming advisors, a deceptively confident first protagonist and a plucky young second one all conspiring to draw me in. It's even got an opening paragraph ("We are more likely to deny truth than admit grave error and change our minds...") that feels like an shoe-in for the pantheon of great literary opening statements about human nature. Unfortunately, 2020 being 2020, with all its effects on my confidence, reading ability and attention span, the experience of reading Master of Poisons turned in my mind from "will be awesome, just need to focus" to "insurmountable reading challenge". This is a book that I wanted to give my full attention to, and that meant leaving it on my bedside table for far longer than I wanted to. But! We would not be here if I had not Successfully Read the Book, and I'm here to tell you that this is a book that you, too, can and should read!

Master of Poisons centres around two characters on very different journeys, within a multiethnic African-inspired land dominated by the Arkhysian Empire. Djola is the Master of Poisons in that empire, a northerner who has risen to a senior position and won the trust of the empire within a set of scheming advisors. When we're introduced to him, he feels utterly comfortable in his position: middle-aged, married with children, happy with the political game he's playing and willing to take a risk or two to see his plans through. However, with the empire's attention taken by a poison desert which threatens to overtake the land on which the empire is built, Djola's plan to harness forbidden magic backfires on him, and he finds himself exiled, pushed to the margins of his home and separated from his wife and children until he returns with a solution. Djola's exile takes him out to sea, where he spends a considerable amount of time with slave-taking pirate captain Pezarrat and his awful crew, trying to figure out his own direction and what his empire needs from him. It's a journey that tears him down before we see any progress in his goals, and watching him grapple with his failures and try to uncover and harness magic that the empire he serves has driven to the margins is hard to watch, even as his initial overconfidence makes it a fitting arc.

The other main character is also embedded in magics outlawed by the empire. Awa is a "green sprite", 12 years old at the start of the book, who is being brought up among a group of Lahesh conjurers. Having been sold by her father after being exposed to the Smokelands, a supernatural realm which her mother has taught her to access, Awa has a traumatic entry into her new world, but her anger at her father and brothers for their actions is tempered by her flourishing in the Green Elders camp, where she learns to navigate the smokelands and begins training as a griot. Unfortunately, Awa's early sections were home to the language choice I just couldn't get on board with in Master of Poisons: the italicisation of the neopronoun "vie" for those who identify as veson, neither man nor woman. The empire doesn't recognise veson (are you starting to see a pattern here), meaning they are largely associated with marginalised supernatural groups; along with other italicisation choices, the italicisation of "vie" seems to be to show how the veson are an "othered" cultural element to the empire. However, when applied specifically to a neopronoun (which doesn't change with case, so he/him/his translates to vie/vie/vie) it's an uncomfortable choice, to say the least. That said, without familiarity with the cultures Master of Poisons is drawing on, I may be missing crucial context here, and apart from the italicisation I appreciated the book's portrayal of a range of queer and nonbinary characters. 

The world of Master of Poisons is richly drawn, its different cultures intriguing and distinct even as the book portrays their erosion by a homogenising empire. After the initial set-up, both Djola and Awa take their time in their respective situations: Awa spends that time growing into her power and learning about what she can achieve in the Smokelands and in the waking world, while Djola, as mentioned, is sad and frustrated on a pirate ship. This initial period spans years, and its not until the midpoint when things suddenly take a sharp left turn, with Djola reclaiming agency over his mission and Awa being subjected to significant external forces that change her destiny and separate her from her found family, forcing her to draw on hidden resources (and make new friends) to survive as a captive in the empire's grasp. Things in the second half move significantly faster than the first, but the themes remain consistent: this is a book with lots to say about trust and survival in hostile circumstances. If there's a criticism to be had in this second half, its that some of these relationships don't land as effectively without the space to breathe of the slower first half.

While it's a great read throughout, Master of Poisons really sparkles from the point at which Djola and Awa's stories intersect. The two bring an initial scepticism to each other's missions that soon evolves into respect and then into genuine care, a chemistry that draws the reader in against the backdrop of an evocative supernatural journey. Their relationship re-energises the book's focus: which is, after all, about saving an empire from what is technically a poison desert but is actually about its own complacency and greed. That ending, when it comes, is fast paced but ultimately satisfying, a culmination of a serious journey of a book that left me very happy with the whole experience, despite how long it ultimately took me.
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The minute I opened Master of Poisons, I knew I was in for a journey unlike anything I’ve experienced before.

Sprawling over many years, Master of Poisons is bone-achingly beautiful, intensely emotional & brutally poetic. Pirates & poisonous storms & warhorses & floating cities & assassins & protective bees & lost souls & A Very Good Dog™. I was completely swept away by Hairston’s delivery of this highly intoxicating world! With timely themes of climate change, racism, politics & survival, Master of Poisons is a deeply powerful story. Mind-blowing worldbuilding, rich folklore, a uniquely compelling magic system & gloriously vibrant characterizations.

It is so stunning, in part because of just how wonderfully queer it is. In fact, few cis straight individuals populate this landscape. Rather, there are an assortment of queer relationships & nonbinary characters, known as the Anawanama word “veson” with “vie” their preferred pronoun.
I couldn’t help but fall in love with this magical world!

“You all are my heart beating.”

Master of Poisons felt like it cracked my heart open, while a swarm of bees burst out of the open chest cavity. It’s one of the most breathtaking stories that I’ve read in recent years & I’ll be thinking about it for quite some time to come.
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Master of Poisons is a gorgeously-written fantasy novel. Hairston gorgeously builds a world that teeters on the brink of its own end. And yet, there is an undeniable call to hope by the people within— some hope in magic, in religion, in leaders, in themselves. 

Like some other reviews mentioned, this book does have a slower pace. It has a more poetic, or storytelling, feel to it. I actually did something I do very rarely, and restarted reading after I’d read about 25% of it. (I was personally distracted from most things when I began this book, and I could tell I would better enjoy Master of Poisons, if I allowed it this extra attention.) I’m glad I did so.) I understand it can be a little weird to get into a different storytelling style in a book, but I highly encourage you to commit to giving this a proper try.

I received an e-ARC of this title via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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I have been trying to pick this book up multiple times and just can't get into it. The plot kept losing me and everything seemed too complex, scattered.

DNF
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