Although Charles R. Saunders passed back in May, word of his death didn’t make the rounds until early September. It breaks my heart that Saunders isn’t a household name. His fiction, particularly the Imaro series, and non-fiction were widely influential and eye-opening, even if not many fantasy readers today know his name. In the last few years we’ve seen more and more Africa-inspired epic fantasy, a subgenre Saunders helped define and shape four decades ago. We have been blessed with books from the diaspora and the continent, game changers like Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf, C. T. Rwizi’s Scarlet Odyssey, and now Andrea Hairston’s Master of Poisons.
Master of Poisons is the story of Djola and Awa, a powerful man and a curious young woman. Djola, the Emperor’s right hand man, has for years tried to warn his leader about the imminent disaster that awaits his people. A poison desert is spreading across the land, destroying everything it wake. Starvation and thirst drive villagers into cities and create fractures in once-strong inter-clan relationships. Years ago he came to the Arkhysian Empire and helped secure the throne for the current Emperor, but now he must risk the wrath of a powerful and angry man to save what is left of the empire.
Awa is nothing like Djola. After her parents sell her off, she trains to become a griot. Her abilities go far beyond what most her age can achieve. As she hones and expands her powers, she begins to see the truth between the lies she was told about the history of her nation and the people it discards. Eventually, her story collides with Djola’s. With new awareness of the world and its well of magic, they will try to undo the damage suffocating the empire.
In Master of Poisons, Andrea Hairston picks at colonialism, sexism, and environmental destruction. Where others seek quick and easy solutions to a growing catastrophe, Djola knows a big problem requires a big solution. To solve the poison desert problem he needs to dig up an ancient spell, but he is constantly frustrated by the lack of appropriate responses from those in control. For him, climate change inspires a sense of loyalty and dedication to his people while others turn inwards and hoard resources.
Awa has her own problems. The poison desert isn’t as immediate a threat as what will happen if her village finds out she can Smoke-walk through the spirit realm. Magic like that is the province of men. Women who are found out suffer an agonizing and horrifying fate. Being sold to the Green Elders is both punishment and protection. They can teach her how to be a griot, how to use and grow her innate skills. She’ll need those abilities to help Djola with his plans. In the meantime, her time with the Green Elders opens her eyes to the prejudices of her people. She realizes that just because Arkhysians think of themselves as the center of the universe and everyone else as “savages” doesn’t mean it’s actually true.
Master of Poisons is rich in worldbuilding yet intimate in details. It is a sprawling saga that covers years and worlds but still feels deeply personal. Hairston’s magical system here is highly inventive and unlike anything else I’ve read before. It is complicated and I’m not sure even now I fully understand it, but I liked the density and confusion. The way she describes that magic is breathtaking, particularly the sojourns through Smokeland, “a true realm of vision and spirits…a vast territory of possibilities and maybe-nots, but never very far from what was happening right now.” A good chunk of the novel is spent with Awa and Djola traversing Smokeland and battling its more sinister denizens, and each scene is more visceral than the last.
Sentinel bees clustered around Awa’s mouth. She was afraid they might sting her. Was she the danger? They spit honey and venom on her tongue, a bittersweet concoction. Night fell like a dark curtain. A cold scar moon hung overhead, a desperate lantern in deep dark. Sentinels wagged their butts and buzzed away from the giant hive. Awa flew among a thousand thousand bees toward Smokeland’s border, where flowers dissolved and cathedral trees crumbled into poison sand…Confronted with the famed horror of the border realm, Awa tried to slow down, tried to turn back for bee paradise, but she no longer had the speed of thought. Her mind was sluggish terror and then blank as void-smoke enveloped her. A taste of the sentinels lingered in her mouth. A stinger caught in a tooth pricked her tongue. Venom flowed to her heart and she swooned.
If I had to complain about something, it would be that the structure of the chapters clashed with the pacing of the plot. Chapters were generally short, two or three pages at most, which, when paired with the expansive time frame and gradual pacing, made the story feel like it was barely moving. As in I felt like I was breezing through chapters yet making little progress through the narrative. One of the selling points of epic fantasy is its breadth and depth, so your mileage may vary. And it certainly wasn’t enough of an obstacle to ding my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.
Epic fantasy readers, you’re about to read your new favorite book. With its large cast of characters, stunning worldbuilding, gorgeous prose, and fascinating magic, Master of Poisons will shake you to your core. Andrea Hairston has done it again. All hail the queen.
Alex Brown is a librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.