Fantasy novels are full of swords and magic, knights and wizards. There are large scale battles, individual duels, and assassins galore. One weapon that doesn’t turn up nearly as often as it should, at least in our opinion, is poison. Luckily, when it does turn up, it tends to be in dramatic ways, as demonstrated by these 7 novels.
City of Lies by Sam Hawke
“I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me.” That’s the opening line to Sam Hawke’s debut fantasy novel City of Lies, a story of family, treachery, war, and, of course, poison. Jovan, our hero, is the quiet best friend of the Chancellor’s heir, destined to always be a step behind his friend—because that’s the best place to protect him. Jovan is a proofer, trained in identifying and countering poisons. And, of course, using them if necessary. When the Chancellor is murdered by an unknown poison, it will take all of Jovan’s art to keep the impulsive heir alive while they try to unravel the mystery.
The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
A true classic of epic fantasy, Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy is full of magic, violence, and, naturally, poison. FitzChivalry Farseer was born a royal bastard, and is taken in by the royal family so that they can train him to be useful to them—primarily as an assassin. One of the tools in Fitz’s arsenal is poison: deadroot, death angel mushrooms, and nightmist are three of the particularly deadly poisons that show up in the series. Hobb is a masterful writer, and as Fitz learns his craft and begins to use it (and have it used against him) readers will fall in love with his earnest desire to please his royal family.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
One of the most famous poisons in fantasy history—both in books and movies—has to be iocaine powder. In one of our favorite scenes in Goldman’s novel, the man in black outwits Vizzini with a rigged psychological game, challenging Vizzini to guess which cup of wine contains the iocaine poison. Of course, we all know both cups were in fact poisoned, but our handsome man in black has built up an immunity to iocaine powder. That’s only one element of this classic fantasy novel, of course (“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”), but it’s one of our favorites.
Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake
“Three dark queens are born in a glen, sweet little triplets that will never be friends…” because one is destined to kill the other two and claim the crown. That’s the setup for Kendare Blake’s dark novel, featuring three sisters who each have a particular skill or power. Katharine, one of the sisters, is supposed to be a poisoner, immune to any and all poisons. When we meet her, her ability hasn’t manifested yet, so her guardians try to build up her immunity the old fashioned way: by feeding her small amounts of deadly poisons, leaving her physically frail. Will Katharine’s ability ever manifest? And, more importantly, which of the sisters is strong enough to become queen?
Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
The previous proofers and taste testers in this list have been volunteers or born with natural abilities, but that’s not the case in Maria V. Snyder’s series. Our heroine, Yelena, is an admitted, convicted murderer, who is offered the position of taste tester to the Commander of Ixia only because no one cares if she dies. Luckily, Yelena is strong and, more importantly, has a great palette—she learns how to identify poisons quickly and accurately, and twice survives attacks using the nearly-always-fatal poison My Love. Navigating the politics of life in Ixia is hard enough, but when you’re constantly having to ingest poisons on top of it? Let’s just say that while we love reading about Yelena, we definitely don’t want her life.
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
In George R. R. Martin’s epic series, poison turns up fairly often, and sometimes in incredibly dramatic fashion. It’s definitely the weapon of choice for many of the women in the series. We see King Joffrey violently murdered with a poison called The Strangler, which causes him to choke and suffocate, dying quickly and very, very publicly. It’s discovered that Lysa Arryn used the Tears of Lys, a slow-acting poison, to kill her husband Jon. The HBO show even decided to up the poison factor, including a poison called The Long Farewell, which is used by Ellaria Sand to poison Myrcella Baratheon–which, of course, causes Myrcella’s mother Cersei to use the same poison to kill Ellaria’s daughter in revenge. With so many poisonings, it’s a good thing the series has a massive cast of characters, otherwise there wouldn’t be anyone left at this point!
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
Poison plays a smaller role in Kai Ashante Wilson’s novella than in the previous books on this list, but we wanted to include it because it shows an interesting side of poison that many fantasy novels don’t touch on–the fact that poisons aren’t, in fact, all bad. Many even have medical benefits and are only lethal in large doses. In The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, one of the characteristics that makes our protagonist Demane a demigod is that he secretes poison from his skin. He uses that poison, in small doses of course, as an anaesthetic in his unofficial role as medic to a band of mercenaries. A lot of dangerous things have a good side if used carefully!