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  • TITLE: The Poison Master
  • AUTHOR: Liz Williams
  • PUBLICATION YEAR: 2003
  • AWARDS: BFA finalist
  • WEBSITE: ww.sfrevu.com/ISSUES/2003/0306/
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    Liz Williams is turning into a very prolific author. As of the turn into 2007, she has turned out 5 stand-alone novels, another 5 (counting some soon-to-be-published here) in series with one of the two serials taking from her first novel, The Ghost Sister, plus at least one collection of her short works. This is all in less than a decade, with the first novel being published in 2001. Plus, she turns out an ongoing journal at http://mevennen.livejournal.com/, titled after a figurehead from the Monde D'Isle world, who is an outcast because of her “landblindness”. Which is ironic because about the only thing Ms. Williams doesn't do with gusto if not insight is return to an outdated website, http://www.arkady.btinternet.co.uk/, and turn that glaring portrait to the wall. (The yearly grooming chores reveal this has occurred, as the arkady link is dead, but the mevennen is still quite active--03/11/12)

    Her third novel, The Poison Master, seems diluted with traditions from past masters like Jack Vance and Philip Jose Farmer. There is the sense of capturing the things that really matter; the seminal, the universal, the biggest picture, if you will. The trials and torments of protagonist Alivet Dee go beyond the inbound, oppressed world of Latent Emanation, both literally and figuratively, to mix with the vapors of many worlds, civilizations and cultures peopled with a vast array of technology and thaumaturgy, intelligence and personality above and below Alivet's comprehension. Ms. Williams has laid out her Lego set of world building and invited you to play. But you can't leave the room; there is containment, after all. And the necessary pinchings of detail so you won't float off too far.

    I won't bother with the complexities of her plot. For that, see the SF Site review through this portal.

    This potion is not without grimacing tastes, however. Whenever the jurisdiction of genre is breeched as in the blending of science fiction, fantasy, and historical fantasy found here, there's always the risk of spilling the suspension and drowning the reader. The vast majority of her story takes place on imagined worlds, yet Ms. Williams injects a narrative sequence unfolding on Earth of the 1500s. It is fascinating as a running framing device, but too threadbare with details and conviction for the power and importance of its final hook. It also lacks the driving curiosity to turn pages, as any astute reader will penetrate its secret half-way through the episodes. Puzzlingly enough, you either want more or less of these intrusions.

    Another gear grinder is the transportation used between worlds. The interstellar portals act as docks for a “vast machine . . . of some burnished metal” (Bantam, ISBN 0553584987, 1st PB printing, c.2003, p.122) with oval openings and dark swirls called a drift-boat. I fully expected Captain Nemo to poke his head in and say, “All aboard! Next stop, Hathes!”

    Characterization, and its symbiosis with plot, needs to be observed, also. Alivet Dee has all the common flushings of heroinism—tenacity of will and purpose, loyalty, moral standards, self-doubt, physical charm and spryness, and that enduring if somewhat tumultuous relationship with competence under pressure. But she also has the room-clearing characteristics of a motormouth constantly drooling out gossip, me-isms, and boring, fear-based speculation. For a third-person perspective, the author spends way too much time in her head. She's like a Chatty Cathy doll with a broken pull chord. Fortunately, Ghairen, the Poison Master of the title, doesn't hear this mental spew, or there'd be little lovebond between them. Somehow he reminds me of the character played by actor Victor Garber as Sydny Bristow 's father in TV's Alias series. Always furrowing his brow, his personality seems as devoid and uninteresting as his pasty, dinnerplate-sized face. All the intrigue, slippery-yet-fascinating mental formulations of a rogue, the assassian with soul, or the fiery mystique of a lover are mere imagined manipulations blatantly exploited for plot sustenance. Ghairen ends up Alivet's Milquetoast Melvin doll—an unlikely overseer of the Dark Lords' dismissal. These are certainly stereotypical servings filled with unsuspected flairs of personality, although, I suspect, more common in Romance novel formulations. However, since the flavor of this novel is not cynically tinged in anti-heroism or black comedy, you'd hope the main players should be at least likeable and consuming enough to hang with for a week or so.

    Ms. Williams seems to possess all the ingredients to stir us with grand adventures. Personally, I'd like to see her slow down, as copious production can bake up more pulp than profundity. But, I surmise, she's still teasing us with the possibility of greatness to come.

     

    © copyright 01/30/2007 by Larry Crawford

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