In this epic fantasy that draws upon African folkloric tradition and addresses climate change, Djola, righthand man and spymaster of the lord of the Arkhysian Empire, is desperately trying to save his adopted homeland, even in exile. Awa, a young woman training to be a powerful griot, tests the limits of her knowledge and comes into her own in a world of sorcery, floating cities, kindly beasts, and uncertain men.
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 ... 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.
... clear, satisfying, and fruitful ... much to admire ... Close relationships between characters throb with passion, even when given little time to develop ... The novel is at its best in its quiet moments, when Djola and Awa’s narratives intertwine, and long-held emotions and confessions are brought to the forefront. In a war-torn landscape, with hardly a moment to breathe, these quiet moments are a place of refuge ... Where I, as a new fantasy reader, fell short was in understanding the details of the world as a whole. Many times I read a language or societal role, never quite internalized its significance, and found it come back over and over again and reminding me of my lack of understanding ... Hairston’s worldbuilding is complex, frequently layered, and to look for a simplistic, clean-cut magic system is to search fruitlessly ... While we’re frequently reminded of Xhalan Xhala, spell of all spells, its true significance and origins remain murky and difficult to interpret. Part of the overall confusion I attribute to my own lack of experience in new worlds. Yet I am left to wonder if the novel being so grand in scope could have focused more time in developing the characters and their relationships to one another. More moments of levity, to break from the tension. More frequent reminders of when all is lost, what these characters are ultimately living for. More moments of humanity ... at its core, Master of Poisons is a novel of folklore, of corruption, of both reclaiming tradition and starting anew, and honoring myriad voices in society (the powerful and marginalized). One can delight in the multifaceted worldbuilding, the many languages and threads of folklore, and the blending of the real world and the spirit world. For new fantasy readers, the novel is ultimately grounded in all too familiar themes, those of acceptance, survival, and justice. Themes we, especially those most marginalized in our communities, can recognize at once.
Hairston pulls the reader into a mythical fantasyland based on Africa, and the tone, pace, and stories within the novel speak to the folkloric tradition, reminiscent of Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019) ... Fans of Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone (2015) and S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass (2017) will enjoy this.