Reading the letter once more, Dee marvelled at the prospect of living in such an age as this, when a new discovery seemed to spring forth every day like wisdom from the head of Jupiter...
Liz Williams tends to be classed as a science fiction writer. But on the evidence of her third novel, The Poison Master (2003), I'm inclined to think that she's only doing SF in the sense that Sheri S Tepper is; which is to say, largely incidentally. (The comparison isn't accidental; Williams' second novel, Empire of Bones, reads like Tepper with the polemic toned down and a better ear for dialogue.) The Poison Master is a fantasy in a vaguely SFnal environment. Or, looked at another way, the science it extrapolates from is firmly sixteenth century: alchemy, humours, and herbalism are the order of the day, and the ways they are used owe more to fantastical and historical fiction than they do to SF.
This is intentional. Structured in eleven parts, each named after a part of the alchemical process, the book is divided into two strands. One, set in the latter half of the sixteenth century, dips in and out of the life of John Dee, as his various researches - a typically early-modern blend of what we would divide into 'occult' and 'scientific', but which presented no contradiction in his day - both make his name and land him in trouble on a regular basis:
"I should hardly call trigonometry a peculiar practice," Dee said mildly. "It reflects God's work, nothing more."
"As do your own mathematical arts? Making dung-beetles fly through the heavens?" Bonner leaned forward and the mask fell away. "For what purpose other than to mock God?"
"I did not--"
"And the making of waxen effigies? The lewd and vain practices of calculating and conjuring?"
This exchange, with a disapproving bishop seeking evidence to arraign Dee, beautifully captures (I particularly like the last line) contemporary attitudes towards - and suspicions of - both science and the occult, and show the conflation of the two. Williams has, in general, a secure if unshowy feel for the period; she creates the necessary feel with understated descriptions and slightly mannered dialogue, relying on touchstone references rather than trying too hard to approximate the flowery language of the time. It lacks the richness, obviously, of really good historical fiction, but is clearly there to provide a backdrop for Dee's ideas rather than as an end in itself:
Dee went back into his rooms and sat down at the desk. Spring rain streaked the leaded windows, turning the bleached stones of Trinity as grey as bone. An east wind, cold as the forests of Muscovy from which it had come, roared across the fens and rattled the doors. Somewhere in the building Dee could hear the drift of a lute.
Of course, this being a fantasy novel, it becomes apparent that Dee is into something more than long division or pentagrams. Which is where the second (much bigger) strand of the story comes in, although how the two link up is not revealed until much later in the novel: the story of Alivet, a druggist and alchemist on the (brilliantly-named) Latent Emanation, a dark and foetid world where human beings live on the sufferance of shadowy figures known as the Lords of Night - in return for a mandatory corvée, whose participants are drawn from among their children. We are told this rather directly (in what is, unfortunately, neither the first nor the last instance of Williams' tendency to info-dump material that really ought to be - and is - clear enough from the wider plot):
"Whatever the Lords might be, look at all they've done for us. Helped us build our city, make sure law and order is maintained - and they protect us, too, from the beings of the worlds beyond. Without the Lords, what would happen to us? My father always used to say that taking a few hundred youngsters to be Enbonded was a small price to pay, really."
Those who are taken to labour never return. Alivet's sister is one of them, and naturally our heroine vows to rescue her. She follows one of the few careers open to a woman of her low birth - society on Latent Emanation not being far removed from that of Tudor England - becoming an assistant to a purveyor of recreational drugs for the rich, bored, and thrill-seeking. It is in the context of Alivet's skills that Williams gives us probably my favourite aspects of the novel: the heady descriptions of how Alivet works, psychically, with her various drugs:
Alivet pulled her hood over her face and curled up on the floor, staring into warm, sparkling darkness as the drug coursed through her. Dreaming menifew: green, chthonic, familiar. It was one of the companion plants, not an enemy that needed placation and the small sacrifices of vomiting or mania. She focused, conjuring up an image of the plant: a thick, sap-filled stem, fleshy leaves with a black-jade gloss, small crimson flowers like drops of blood. She sent the image within, calling up the spirit of the psychopomp.
All drugs had spirits attached to them: it was simply a matter of whether those allied spirits were friendly or not.
(Sounds more fantasy than SF? Precisely.)
Almost as soon as we are introduced to her, Alivet finds herself on the run, hunted by the Unpriests (the Lords' creepy servants) when a highborn client unexpectedly dies as an apparent result of her ministrations. She falls in with a chap named Ghairen, the titular poison master, in whose dubious company Alivet learns many things about her world - most especially, that Latent Emanation is not the only inhabited planet in the vicinity, or at any rate accessible via (mostly unexplained) technology that is alien to oppressed and backward Latent Emanation. Soon planet-hopping with abandon - if not entirely with volition, as she spends much of her time as a prisoner of various other players in the plot, or running away from same only to find herself in another trap - she discovers that the ways of life, too, are quite different on the others:
The Nethenassi, stuck in the honey of their own complacency; the people of Hathes, with their rigidly paranoid society and murderous antics; and her own community on Latent Emanation, who had invented little that was new for a hundred years.
The characteristics of the various planets reflect the Elizabethan conception of the humours (something we are introduced to, again in slightly info-dumpy terms, in Dee's strand of the narrative): swampy, shadowy Latent Emanation is hot and moist, Hathes is so cold and dry that its people live in lofty, climate-controlled towers, Nethes is hot and dry. Williams evokes these varying landscapes well; a shame, really, that the exigencies of the plot mean that we so often pull away from the interestingly exotic surroundings to examine Alivet's precarious situation, and her distrustful relationships with the various ambiguous people she encounters. Alivet and Ghairen are likeable enough characters, but neither they nor their inevitable sexual tension feel quite remarkable enough to hold the reader's focus unwaveringly, against such a backdrop.
The use of alchemical and humoural science to order her fantastical worlds - as both conceptual framework and source of imagery - is a wonderful and fascinating idea, and the big reveal of the connection between Dee and Alivet is nicely done, even if it doesn't really come as a surprise. On this level, the novel works well. Where it is less successful is in terms of the plot, which gets repetitive and never really lives up to the canvas prepared for it, and at times the execution. The writing gets bogged down in clumsy phrasings like this:
The Unpriests were like their masters: capricious and cruel. Alchemical metaphors dominated her imagination: in the hands of the Unpriests, they would undergo dissolution, personalities and spirits rendered down.
...When, it seems to me, it should have more arch delights like this:
Alivet got on with her own tasks, still under the direction of Inki's friend. She prepared fondants of gloom, sorbets of shadows, and sherbets of dusk, each one gathered from the unseen corners of Latent Emanation.