ANDREA HAIRSTON IS A playwright and theater director, a novelist, a critic, and the Louise Wolff Kahn Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies at Smith College. Her previous books include science fiction (Mindscape) and what can best be described as magical realism (Redwood and Wildfire and Will Do Magic for Small Change). Hairston’s new novel, Master of Poisons, is full-fledged epic fantasy. Across these different varieties of fantastic literature, Hairston works in the company of such Black women writers as N. K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Jennifer Brissett, Rivers Solomon, Nicky Drayden, and Sofia Samatar, who are reinventing speculative fiction for the 21st century.
Master of Poisons, like many fantasy novels, gives us an entire imaginary world. Its pages are filled with kingdoms and fortifications and magical spaces and floating cities. In the course of the novel, we meet a wide variety of characters: barbarians and librarians, griots and pirates, slaves and religious fanatics, witch women and even warrior-clowns. And the novel is centered upon the use of magic, which it treats as a technology that is difficult to master, but nonetheless non-arbitrary, and based on fixed rules. The book even comes complete with a map and list of characters in the front, and a glossary of special terms (most of them from various imaginary languages spoken in the course of the narrative) in the back.
All of this (with the possible exception of warrior-clowns) sounds familiar to any devotee of fantasy literature. But Master of Poisons doesn’t conform to the expectations that we generally bring to the genre. For one thing, its background is not European (in the manner of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones), but rather vaguely African. For another, it gives us a variety of queer characters, including vesons, people who define themselves as “neither male nor female.” Most importantly, Master of Poisons doesn’t reproduce the all-too-common pattern of the hero’s journey, the “monomyth” beloved of fanboys everywhere. It asks us, rather, to be wary of heroes and their obsessive quests. As we are warned several times in the course of the novel, “If it’s so bad, you need gods or heroes to save your world, you’re already lost. […] Too often, the heroes or gods we bow down to become the monsters that stomp our bones and drink our blood.”
Master of Poisons therefore offers us hope, but not redemption. There are no permanent solutions to a person’s, or a society’s, problems. Ultimately, “there is no cure, only change.” The two key invented words repeated throughout the novel are Abelzowadyo, meaning “change, shapeshifter, many beings at once,” and Basawili, meaning “not yet the last breath.” Nobody has just a single, forever fixed identity. And within this flux, it is always a question of finding resources to go on, to continue, even when you are exhausted, or near death.
In line with this ethos of mutability, there is something delightfully askew about the novel’s plot logic. It jumps about, meanders, digresses and explores byways, turns back upon itself, and continually follows strange and twisted paths. Hairston refuses to distinguish between the miraculous and the mundane; she asks us to take both equally for granted. Her prose is both gorgeous and slippery. The novel lovingly portrays certain features of its landscape with rich descriptions, while wantonly skipping over others. A world-changing catastrophe may slip by in a paragraph, while pages are devoted to the meandering flight of a bee, or to the passing thoughts of “wild things” such as elephants, whales, trees, and even rivers.
Master of Poisons does have two main protagonists, and shifts back and forth between them, but neither of these figures is quite a conventional hero. Djola, a middle-aged man, is charged to save the Arkhysian Empire from destruction. He has the title Master of Poisons, because he is supposed to know the antidotes to every ailment that afflicts the realm. But he doesn’t know how to deal with ecological devastation. The Empire is politically dominant in the world of the novel; but nonetheless, it is slowly dying. Its territory is continually ravaged by “void-storms” that seem to arise out of nowhere. The storms destroy “green land,” leaving behind nothing but uninhabitable “poison desert.” Food supplies are dwindling, and refugees flood the capital, Arkys City, which doesn’t have the resources to support them. Djola is sent into exile until he can learn the magic that can reverse this slow-motion catastrophe.
The novel’s other protagonist is Awa, a young woman whose birth family cannot afford to feed her, and indeed regards her as superfluous. Her parents sell her to the Green Elders, a group of wisdom-seeking nomads. Awa becomes their apprentice as they wander the wild spaces on the periphery of the Empire, wherever the poison desert has not yet taken hold. Under the tutelage of the Green Elders, Awa learns to hone her nascent visionary skills: she is a gifted explorer of Smokeland, the dreamworld of the imagination. But all too soon, this pleasant life comes to an end. Awa is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Hezram, the despotic High Priest of the Holy City, drains her blood for repeated sacrifices, in order to fortify the sedentary boundaries of his realm.
As might be expected from a heroic fantasy novel, Djola and Awa eventually meet, and learn that they must combine their skills: if not to save the world, then at least to make it livable again. But even as they enter into an alliance, they still find themselves continually buffeted about by forces beyond their control. Djola and Awa learn that, despite their mastery of magic, they cannot compel the world to follow their will. Instead, they can only shape natural currents to the extent that they are also able to bend to them, and flow along with them. Djola renounces his role as Master of Poisons, and becomes the Master of Weeds and Wild Things instead. But this new position is not really one of mastery: you cannot compel weeds and wild things to do what you want, but only learn how to collaborate with them. Awa similarly learns that you cannot wield the imagination as a power of autonomous creation; you must rather insinuate it among the weeds and wild things, subtly inflecting them in the course of going along with them.
Djola and Awa both develop formidable magical skills in the course of the novel. They use these skills for freedom, but they also wreak destruction. Eventually, though, Djola and Awa both come to realize that magic is not enough. They cannot do anything worthwhile by themselves. They need community as much as they need magic. As the folk wisdom often cited in the course of the novel puts it, when bad things happen, “it’s time to pull together,” instead of looking to gods and heroes for salvation. In any case, there is no such thing as definitive victory. Even the genocidal Hezram has powerful magic at his disposal, together with people who love him, and who will do anything for him. These enemies cannot simply be excluded, and they cannot be defeated in battle. Rather, they have to be outmaneuvered politically.
The world of Master of Poisons is rich, strange, and exhilaratingly beautiful; it is also violent and terrible. Yet for all its wonders, in certain ways Hairston’s secondary world also remains disturbingly close to our own. The world of the novel is ravaged by disastrous climate change, by ethnic prejudices and enmities, and by patriarchal bigots who seek to enforce traditional gender norms, to closely regulate forms of sexual expression, and especially to oppress women, queer people, and nonbinary people. Indeed, the novel’s Arkhysian Empire relates to the actually existing United States of America in much the same way that, within the novel, the dream realm of Smokeland relates to the actual world in which its protagonists live. For Smokeland is the realm of potentiality. It gathers together both residues of the past, and seeds of the future, openly developing and making explicit all the hidden, implicit, and latent forces of the present. Smokeland is the realm of magic and of imagination: “[S]moke-walkers were intrepid adventurers exploring the unknown, dream-tinkerers who shifted the shape of the everyday.”
When Awa first visits Smokeland, as a child, it is a realm of benevolent spirits who show her wonders. But later, as she grows up, it becomes sickly and ravaged. Its forests are dying, and its empty spaces are haunted by the angry dead, by “spirit slaves,” and by malicious demons. In principle, Smokeland’s magic can rejuvenate the world; but when the world is ailing, Smokeland is ailing as well. As one refrain repeated throughout the novel tells us, “Smokeland was what might be, what could be, yet never very far from what was happening right now.” This can be taken as a parable of the power of imagination. The future is never predetermined; if we can imagine things being different, then we can make them so. But this openness, this potentiality, is not unlimited. It is ahead of us, but “never very far.” We do not imagine in a vacuum, but only in the form of an extrapolation beyond whatever is “happening right now.” In this way, Andrea Hairston encodes, within her own work of speculative fiction, a vision of what speculative fiction can and cannot do.