Truth, Lies, and the Grey Between – A Review of The Poison Eater by Shanna Germain

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This review is based on an ARC of the book, given to me for free by the publisher, Angry Robot Books. This does not in any way affect my review. It is slated for release on January 17, 2017.

This review contains minor spoilers unrelated to larger plot points.

The first computer RPG I ever played was Neverwinter Nights. It would have been Baldur’s Gate, but the latter kept crashing the laptop I installed it on, so I had to uninstall it and put aside any thoughts of trying to play video games on my laptop. I wound up with Neverwinter Nights because a computer tech my family had contacted to help fix and update our desktop computer had a copy, and he graciously installed it at my request so I could play it. Neverwinter Nights was my introduction to the many realms of Dungeons and Dragons. It turned out to be a very enjoyable game, and though I knew nothing of the lore or mechanics of D&D, Neverwinter Nights hooked me and made me a devoted player of RPGs (albeit mostly in video game format).

This is why, while I was browsing Steam, I was drawn to Torment: Tides of Numenera. I was interested in it because I had played Planescape: Torment once before, and since this game is “Planescape’s spiritual successor” I was immediately interested in it. Though the full game isn’t available yet, those who have played the Early Access version praise it quite highly, and I intend to get a copy of it as soon as a full release becomes available. But in the meantime, I decided to look up just what in the world “Numenera” was, and it turns out that it’s a tabletop RPG game that gained some renown in the tabletop gaming world around 2013 to 2014. The world is built around a combination of sci-fi and fantasy elements, with a post-apocalyptic touch of the kind that has become rather popular recently in pop culture.

That same world is the setting of Shanna Germain’s The Poison Eater, a novel set in the world of Numenera. It follows Talia, once one of the Twelve Martyrs of the Forgotten Compass. She has managed to escape the grisly fate of the other Martyrs by fleeing to Enthait and pursuing the path of the poison eater, but Talia must navigate the vanishingly thin line between truth and lies in rider to survive. When her past comes back to threaten her present, she must decide just how much truth, and how much lie, she can continue telling in order to keep herself and those she has come to love safe from harm.

There are quite a few things I like about this book, but there are also a few things that I am not especially fond of. Most notable of the latter is the lack of world-building. This is not to say that it is completely absent; Germain takes time to build the city of Enthait, going so far as to weave in a language that is unique to the city and its people. However, Germain does not extend this level of detail to the rest of the world itself. While no fantasy writer is obligated to describe their setting down to the very last detail, they do still need to elaborate upon the aspects that are crucial to their story. The level of detail tends to vary from writer to writer, and the amount of detail a reader needs to feel satisfied that he or she has a firm grip on the world varies as well. For my part, I don’t need a lot of exposition for my imagination to do its job, and I am quite happy to work to understand a world (I appreciate writers who make me do so), but I do need a certain amount of workable information in order to gain some kind of foothold in said world.

This is where the book fails: giving the reader a relatively good idea of the world outside of Enthait, especially where it relates to Talia’s past. What is the Forgotten Compass, exactly? Who are the Twelve Martyrs? What is their purpose? Why did the vordcha make them in the first place? I do not mind not knowing who or what the vordcha are, precisely, beyond the details that are given in the story, but I do wish that there had been a bit more information regarding the Forgotten Compass and the Martyrs. I think it would have made Talia more interesting as a character, as well as a lot more sympathetic, if the reader knows just what it really means to be a Martyr (aside from what the word usually means).

I suppose this lack of detail is because most of the information can be found in the Numenera sourcebooks. If the reader really wants to know about the Forgotten Compass, the Martyrs, and even the vordcha, then he or she is free to purchase the necessary tabletop gaming sourcebooks and find the answers for himself and herself. This is, however, entirely the wrong approach to writing these kinds of tie-in novels. These kinds of books need to be able to stand independently from the source material, since not all readers will be inclined to buy a sixty-dollar corebook (twenty dollars for the PDF version) for a game they might not even be interested in playing, just because they want answers to questions that ought to have been answered (at least briefly) in the book itself.

This insufficient world-building affects other aspects of the novel as well – specifically, the plot. Despite much of the action being contained within Enthait itself, the lack of a broader context for many of the details supporting those plot events is a touch frustrating. This is especially true with the novel’s climax: on its own, it’s not entirely bad as a culmination of everything that has happened up until that point in the story, but I think it could have had significantly more impact and urgency had the world-building been a bit more comprehensive. By providing context for what Talia is running away from, it gets the reader to truly invest, not only in Talia herself, but in Enthait as a whole.

Of course, this is assuming that The Poison Eater is a standalone, and not the first book in the series. If it is the first book in a series, then the lack of detail might be forgivable, since there is the promise of further elaboration in the coming books. But if this is a standalone, then my complaint still stands: the world-building isn’t enough to really support the kind of story the book is trying to tell.

Fortunately, the characterisation remains mostly unaffected by the insufficient world-building, although I will not deny that stronger world-building would have improved characterisation. Talia is a fascinating character, and her arc is interesting to read about despite the lack of context for some of the things she mentions. The story depicts her struggle between past and present, truth and lies in a way that is sympathetic, though it is also clear that what she is doing is questionable and can put many people in danger. I also find the orness a fascinating figure, but her characterisation suffers the most from the lack of world-building; though the book does explain (after a fashion) what the orness is supposed to do and why she is such a significant figure, a little more background information would have deepened her characterisation and put her role into better perspective.

Another thing that helps this book’s cause is the quality of the writing. Unlike many books set in post-apocalyptic worlds, which tend to feature grim, hard-edged prose, there is a certain softness in Germain’s storytelling: a touch of grief and poignancy around the edges that I rather like. The prose does not soften the hard, harsh realities of the world, of course, but it is tinged with a kind of bittersweetness that I was not expecting, but am pleased to see. Take this excerpt for example:

“I could stay,” Talia said, and then regretted it because she knew the answer. Oh, the heart gone to rot and softness. So soon.

Or this one:

That was the thing about memories. you had to look at them, didn’t you? Revisit them? In order to keep them alive.

It is clear that the writing is quite strong, and Germain is more than capable of spinning words to tell a story, but once more the writing is undermined by the world-building.

Overall, The Poison Eater is a book with its merits and its weaknesses. On one hand, the quality of the writing and the characterisation are quite strong, but they could have been significantly stronger had the world-building been more comprehensive. This would have also strengthened the plot, giving vital context to various events and adding significant depth and substance to the story as a whole. If the reader is already familiar with the world of Numenera, he or she might not have many problems with this book, but readers who are coming to this book with absolutely zero knowledge of Numenera may find themselves with more questions than answers.

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