Reading Poison by Chris Wooding

And again, a brief shift to Foundation, for a review from 2008

Poison – Chris Wooding
(Scholastic Press, 2003)

‘Imagination is as close as we will ever be to godhead,’ observes a character towards the end of Poison. ‘[f]or in imagination we can create wonders.’ But if imagination is the driving force of fiction, why then does one always feel slightly uneasy when an author talks about the process of creating fiction even while creating it. Was that a knowing wink to the audience or did one just catch the author’s eye at an inopportune moment? Did the façade of fiction fall over intentionally, or was it caught a glancing blow by a clumsy protagonist? In flaying the carcass of the work as it progresses, does not the author also risk laying bare its flaws and inadequacies? In the case of Poison, it’s not always easy to tell what Chris Wooding’s intention is, and neither is it easy to tell whether or not that is Chris Wooding’s intention.

Wooding’s most recent novel, The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, a young-adult fantasy, was set in an alternative quasi-Dickensian London threatened by wyches, supernatural beings that Thaniel Fox hunted down and killed in order to make his living. The novel was striking for its distinctive, atmospheric settings, its attractive if not always likeable characters, and Wooding’s ability to fuse magic and technology in a manner that felt plausible. Admittedly, the plot was conventionally framed as a race against time to save the world from evil forces, but the story was told with verve, and it rightly garnered critical acclaim.

In Poison, Wooding has set his sights on something rather more ambitious. His approach is best summed up by an incident part way through the novel, when the four main characters make their way secretly through an enemy’s castle, moving along a narrow passageway between the inner and outer skins of the building, peering into rooms as they go. Much of the second part of the novel hinges on a series of observations which they make during this clandestine progress, and their subsequent ability to understand the significance of what they have seen. Even as he tells his story, Wooding invites the reader to slip through the interstices of plot and narration in order to admire the manner of their construction. The question is, can Poison stand up to such intense scrutiny?

There is never any doubt that we are in a novel where storytelling will be to the fore. Poison begins with the traditional invocation, once upon a time, even while it subverts expectations by giving us a self-christened heroine called Poison. Her situation is familiar in its unremitting grimness: she is an outsider in her community, and at odds with her stepmother. Her father is decent but careworn, and she relies on her mysterious friend, Fleet, also an outsider, for support. He tells her stories and gives her advice, not least telling her that: ‘[r]eal life is a story too, only much more complicated. It’s still got a beginning, a middle and an end. Everyone follows the same rules, you know … it’s just that there are more of them.’

An experienced reader will already be struck by the patness of the story, even down to Poison’s possessing violet eyes, a sure sign of literary destiny. There are hints of a deeper, wider-ranging story – Wooding institutes some playing with names (Poison’s original name is Foxglove, her birth mother was Faraway, her stepmother is Snapdragon) and offers a tantalising analysis of the female characters’ various discontents – but this is finally sacrificed to Poison’s story. Swiftly and inevitably, Poison shows herself to be a competent heroine when her sister is snatched by the Scarecrow, a sandman-like figure, and a changeling left in her place. Almost before one can blink, she is standing by the side of the road, waiting to hitch a lift with a wraith-catcher who had fortuitously been staying in the village the night before, and who will take her to the city to begin her quest to recover her sister. Yet this is not formulaic fantasy. Wooding has already expended too much energy on neat touches and on small details which, alas, he will not follow up on later. Clearly something else is happening; the question is, what is it?

‘It was just like the stories,’ begins one chapter, the chapter in which the three companions: competent girl, brainless but beautiful girl; older, reliable male, and their supernaturally bright cat, head into a glaringly perfect fantastic landscape. Indeed it was, and this is what we are supposed to notice, even without Wooding flagging up the fact quite as vigorously as he does. And were we to be left in any doubt, the group quickly encounters a figure familiar to readers of C.S. Lewis. He may be called Myrrk, but it’s very clear that his ancestry includes a large quantity of marsh-wiggle. His entire raison d’etre within the text appears to be to provide a commentary on what is and isn’t customary in a work of genre fantasy, and, more significantly, on authors who do not fully sketch out their characters. His is an unexpectedly large and unsubtle textual intrusion, compared to others in the book, but there are many. Here be not so much dragons as unadorned hints about the artificiality of text.

There is a point to this, it turns out. Poison’s world is one of many that jostle alongside one another, all of them presided over by the Hierophant., whose castle is notable for having a library which is somehow present in all those different worlds. The Hierophant – a person, especially a priest, who interprets sacred or esoteric mysteries – is the creator, the author even, of these worlds, even though his job nowadays is more to give them a nudge, here and there, as they find their own ways, than to actively create new worlds. But when the Hierophant writes, his words literally are law, which means that he is still a force to be reckoned with, even if his creations, or those of his predecessors, appear to exert free will. Which is particularly problematic for Poison, once she realises what the reader must already have guessed, that the Hierophant has written her journey for her, guiding her to his castle to become his apprentice. Given that her entire life has, she believes, been driven by her own free will, how can she deal with this outbreak of determinacy? By exerting her own will, of course, by deciding to die and thus thwart the Hierophant’s plans. And yet, as Poison wills herself to death, everything around her fades, because it’s her own story she’s in control of. The moral is irritatingly clear and of course Poison lives on.

The very neatness of this revelation marks what has become so evident in the story as it progresses. It’s become too tidy, anodyne even. In walking Poison through the conventions of genre, the Hierophant, preoccupied with his sacred responsibility to the text, seems to have eliminated any chance for her imagination to flourish, and the same extends to Wooding in his hierophantic relationship with the text. Plot, as I’ve previously observed, is not his forte, although he is capable of turning out some frankly barnstorming set-pieces. His evocation of Poison’s marshland home fairly reeks of the swamp, and his descriptions of Poison’s encounters with Lamprey, victim of a kelpie, and Asinatra, Lady of the Spiders are terrifying in a way that owes a good deal to M.R. James. He also has the ability to find the telling phrase. The court of Aelthar, Lord of Phaerie, is described as being ‘glutted with perfection and beauty’, a succinct and effective description, simultaneously evoking wonder and disgust.

However, the novel as a whole is undoubtedly less than the sum of its parts. Humans may have the one thing the inhabitants of other worlds lack, but possessing imagination is not the same as using it. We can explain away the artificiality of the plot as an expression of the Hierophant’s need to train Poison. Indeed, at one point, another character comments on how the stories Fleet told her seem to have been ‘more like a survival manual than a story.’ That is the nub of the problem. While Wooding is, I’m sure, trying to convey to his adolescent readers the power of story, how it can bring colour to an impoverished existence and offer hope for the future, he, like his own creations, has told more than he has shown. Inspiration has been replaced by worthiness. Wooding’s aspirations for his novel have, on this occasion, stretched further than his talent to convey them. Had he been a little less ambitious, he might have been more successful in telling a story. Godhead will have to wait for a little longer.