The Poison Master
The Poison Master was interesting and the world was original. Alivet, the protagonist, is an alchemist on Latent Emenation, a dark, damp world ruled by the insectoid Lords of Night who keep humans enslaved via a brutal system enforced by "unpriests". The people themselves are docile, sodden with drugs and despair, their only rebellion the secret meetings where they search for their origin in drug-induced dreams. Alivet works constantly to try to earn enough to release her sister, Inki, from the clutches of the Lords, where she is an "embonded" slave. Alivet's quiet life is cut short, however, when a girl she is helping to "Experience" drugs recreationally dies, and she is forced to take the aid offered by an alien stranger, who she suspects of being complicit in the death. The stranger requests her aid in return--and given the implicit threat, Alivet feels forced to comply. She is thrown into literally a different world as she seeks to escape her situation and rescue her sister.
The story did a great job of intertwining two different stories: that of Dr. John Dee, mathematician of Earth, whose story is told in brief sections at the start of each chapter, and Alivet, the protagonist. However, I had significant issues with both the characters and the world. The interactions between Alivet and Ghairen, the stereotypical Mysterious Dark Stranger, runs in a prototypical Jane Eyre fashion. Despite her distrust and dislike, Alivet is drawn to him. Honestly, I can't see why. He is domineering and immoral--he is a professional poisoner--and Alivet even suspects him of raping his own daughter. I found his Byronic appearance, cynicism, and total lack of any sort of morality to be incredibly irritating. Even so, apparently Ghairen is supposed to be magnetically attractive. Alivet herself is, in terms of personality, possibly quite strong, but she is dominated and controlled throughout the novel.
The tired old trope of female "mastery" or "domination" via their sexual desirability is also thrown around. I would say that since Ghairen apparently effectively traps Alivet into her situation, routinely locks her into her room at night, forbids her to go outside, forces and restricts her actions, and lays down ultimatums, it is pretty clear that Alivet and he do not have an equal relationship. Personally, I couldn't respect a man who did that, no matter how devilishly attractive he is. Yet, for example, when he puts handcuffs on her right after their first meeting, Alivet has a strong desire for him to "take her" etc. Yuck. Add to it that Ghairen's actions are ambiguous and we can't be sure how immoral he is or what his eventual intentions for Alivet are, and I was completely unable to relate to his character. My lost sympathy for Alivet meant that my main interest in the book was the worldbuilding.
The world was indeed interesting, but again, I was left feeling that it was somehow incomplete and parts seemed to me to be partially contradictory. Either the background was not fully realized or not enough was explained for me to fully understand the backgrounds of the creatures who Alivet meets.
Overall, I found the characters unsympathetic and drawn from the Bronte-style tropes, so the book fell flat for me. However, the book was indeed interesting, and readers who are more interested in original worldbuilding and very clever ties between science fiction and fantasy will really enjoy it.