Estranged from his aristocratic family and impecunious, but defiantly irreverent, Lothar von Schnusenberg walks into a nest of vipers when he arrives in the duchy of Haskilde. His undercover assignment is to sway the duchy’s weak and elderly ruler into concluding an alliance pact with the Empire of Beruz. When the old duke dies, his young and seemingly psychopathic son, Valdemar, succeeds him. If the boy’s own degenerate inclinations weren’t enough, he is also surrounded by cunning rival power’s ambassadors and his own ruthless advisers, notably the notorious Fox. The nest of vipers is stirred into further frenzy when the Empire’s ambassador is murdered. Lothar is appointed his acting successor, and at the same time, stands accused of his murder. The vipers slither all around him, ready to execute the final and deadly strike.
Lothar is not entirely defenceless. Resourceful and clever, conversant with poisons and other low-key weapons of choice of any decent spy, he is in fact in his own element. But more significantly, he has friends. One of them is Torkild, navy lieutenant who is developing the duchy’s new secret weapon: naval steam warships. There is also the fiercely independent and intelligent Edda. And finally, Lothar’s romantic interest, Asta, who also happens to be Duke Valdemar’s governess. All of the characters are drawn with an assured hand and go on take on a life of their own as the story unfolds. They are very complex and dynamic. They will surprise you, entice you, deceive you and prove you wrong. You will grow to care for them, and in some cases, to despise them, but you won’t be indifferent to any of them.
Stretton’s world, of which he has laid foundations in “Bitter Sky”, expands and fully immerses you in “A Little Poison”. It becomes so intricately developed, with regions and nations fleshed out and geo-politically interlinked, that at some point you will feel that this is no longer fantasy but a real place somewhere there in the time-space fabric of your own universe.
The language, and particularly the dialogue, remain trademark Stretton. In a number of scenes revolving around personal relationships, I had a peculiar impression that Jane Austen stepped in to lend the writer her unique style.
All in all, an absolutely engrossing spy adventure with a dose of romantic intrigue and, of course, the inevitable flare of warfare. Loved it.