I haven’t read a new novel published by a gaming company since the days when Dungeons & Dragons was still a TSR property. Back then, I spent a lot of time with novels that frequently wore their related game mechanics on their sleeves, sometimes to the point that you could see a change in editions in a character’s new capabilities. Some of those old novels were good, but many exemplified the worst of “genre” fiction.
Monte Cook Games ended my long hiatus from game-company fiction by including a novel from Shanna Germain as a stretch goal in one of their (awesome) Kickstarter launches. The Poison Eater is a novel of Numenera, the first of the Cypher System games. Numenera, as a game, is hard to pigeonhole. It is essentially a game about discovery in an impossibly far-flung future. Mix the surreal sci-fi art of the 1970s with Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, sprinkle liberally enthusiastic extrapolations from modern sciences, then dial the weird way up, and you’ll get close. As a game, it’s a long way from D&D.
And The Poison Eater? It’s a long way from those old Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms novels.
First: Numenera is as distinct enough as a setting that you need no acquaintance with it to appreciate Germain’s novel. There’s little reliance on conventional fantasy or science fiction tropes. Numenera, as a game and setting, relies on “the weird.” It’s an actual thing in the game, something you’ll see in sidebars and in the main text. The weird of Numenera drives the game—there are billions of years of accreted and discarded and forgotten technology. It is, functionally, magic. What sets Numenera’s weird apart, though, is the persistent sense that all of these devices and ruins meant something else, or still mean something else to a sufficiently knowledgable party. Residents of the Ninth World are bricoleurs, tinkers assembling meaning and utility from bits of other worlds they can’t ever fully comprehend. (I’ll spare you the long tangent about engineers and Claude Levi-Strauss and semiotics.)
Talia, Germain’s protagonist (and the titular poison eater), is just as much a bricoleur as the rest. She’s putting together a new life from lies and devices she doesn’t understand. For much of the novel, she knows just enough to hide what she knows. She and Khee, her faithful warbeast companion, have run to Enthait, a city in the middle of a desert, protected by its greyes and zaffre and by the visions of the poison eater. Said visions are induced by some of the city’s weird devices. The society’s pattern is thus: the poison eater identifies threats to the city; the greyes and zaffre deal with them. When neither the visions nor the dealing with them are simple, you have good grist for a novel’s mill.
Germain’s writing is evocative. She creates the setting as much by what she neglects to explain as what she does explain. It reminded me, at times of Gene Wolfe. Wolfe is better than anybody I’ve read at picking exactly the right amount of exposition, the perfect details that allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Germain accomplishes similar things not so much through her selection of details, but through her diction. There’s a persistent poetry to The Poison Eater that perfectly suits the ambiguities of its protagonist and the inexplicabilities of its setting. The ambiguities of her word choices and the way she uses sound convey Talia’s uneasy relationship with the world. Good stuff.
For all that the novel’s climax features a battle with inhuman forces, the fundamental conflict of The Poison Eater is an interior one (more on that below). As the poison eater, Talia must decipher her visions, which, rather than visions of distant places, are instead memories of her previous existence as a captive of the monstrous vordcha. She must negotiate her relationships with her lover, Isera, and Isera’s daughter, with the captain of the greyes and a technician and the orness (Enthait’s nominal ruler). Talia must decide whether she will commit to these people, whether she will trust them, and whether she will let them trust her.
Talia’s internal conflict plays out against the backdrop of the city of Enthait and against an increasingly imminent exterior threat. There’s a classic skeleton to the story: establish a group of characters with complex relationships, then add heat and pressure to see what breaks and what welds.
The Cool Thing to Consider
Germain establishes the central conflict—and the coolest thing about the novel—in the first two sentences:
Poison never lies.
But Talia does.
“This statement is a lie,” right? Talia knows she is a liar. She has, we quickly learn, been making up the visions the poisons bring. Her comrades expect her to die soon, because that is what poison eaters do. (The poisons really are poisonous.) Talia has other plans, though. Surviving the tenth poison means becoming the orness and getting control of Enthait and a superweapon. The superweapon would, hopefully, allow Talia to destroy the vordcha. The problem? Talia isn’t sure whether she’s a true poison eater. She’s not sure whether the superweapon actually exists. She’s especially unsure of the orness.
Talia consciously wraps herself in lies and, like so many heroes, finds the isolation of falsehood hard to bear. She is torn between desires: desires for the weapon (which would end her fear), desires for stability, rather more literal desire for Isera—but that, too is coupled with a need for their relationship to be more than mere coupling. She must face the question of merely surviving versus actually living. Ho hum, yadda yadda. Mopey intrapersonal conflict. Why do we care?
Beyond the obvious reasons (the quality of the writing, all the reasons we read novels in the first place), we care because Germain keeps wrong-footing Talia, and, by extension, her readers. Just when Talia thinks she has figured something out, she discovers another layer. The nature of truth itself gets murky as Talia matches wits and belief with the orness, her memories, and herself. This is a novel deeply concerned with questions of truth and consequences.
It reminds me at times of China Mieville’s Embassytown (one of the few Mieville novels I have enjoyed without rolling my eyes at the way he wears his cleverness). Embassytown is a novel for linguistics nerds and philosophers, but similarly involves alien forces and the power of lies. The aliens speak two words at once and, because of the relationship between the simultaneously spoken words, cannot lie. Resolving the eventual crisis in that novel requires that, via metaphor, the aliens learn to lie.
There’s nothing so complicatedly linguistic in The Poison Eater, but there’s a similar shell game with what is true, with simultaneity and the effort to comprehend competing ideas. Germain makes it work, which is what takes the novel beyond low-level genre expectations. She does this in part through her use of language; poetry is great for wielding ambiguities and simultaneities. Though Germain doesn’t do any Tolkien-esque pages of song, her novel is shot through with passages that are suggestive and allusive rather than properly expository. She also makes it work by refraining from explaining everything.
That brings us back to bricolage and bricoleurs and Numenera as a game and a world. What makes this novel “literary” is also what makes the game cool: though the foundation and frame are built of fundamental human questions, the rest of the structure is pieced together from the partially-unexplained and the wholly-inexplicable. It’s a fantastic place to play with truth and lies and mystery, and Germain does a great job of it.
What We Nick from this Novel
Reverse your reversed reversals.
Keeping both your characters and your readers guessing is a dangerous game. It’s too easy for the whole thing to slide into murkiness. This is especially true if you throw out all the mysteries at once. What makes The Poison Eater worth nicking from, though, is the way that single strands of mystery weave to and fro. Characters find intermediate answers that seem, in the moment, to be final. Don’t be capricious about it, but let your characters run with incomplete or wrong answers for a while. You—and your readers—will learn something about them, and you’ll potentially do a good job of building the drama, too.