Set in a world where women are less than nothing and dragons are both revered as gods and cruelly abused, Touched By Venom is a little different from the average swords n' sorcery fantasy epic. Following Zarq, daughter of a potter in a poverty-stricken clan, we discover a world of sadism, bestiality, mysogeny and casual brutality, dominated by superstition and bloody ritual.
Following a string of ill-luck, Zarq's clan is destitute and the scorn of their fellows. Her beautiful, proud elder sister is sold into prostitution and her baby brother is given up to the sinister Dragon Temple as an acolyte. Her father is murdered and her mother descends into madness. From there begins a harrowing and fascinating journey that takes us through Cross's richly-fleshed out, dark world. Zarq, only nine years old when all this happens, spends her maturing years in a convent, tending to ancient dragons. Here she developes an addiction to dragon venom and a thirst for vengeance against the people who destroyed her family.
My summary doesn't really do the story justice, as it's far more complex than this, and far darker than the back cover would have you believe. I'd heard so much bad press about this book, I was expecting something ridiculously overblown and unreadable, so I was surprised to be pulled in and enthralled so quickly. Zarq's clear voice is captivating, as is the harsh world she inhabits. It's probably not a book for those who like their dragons Pern-style. And it's definitely not a book for those uncomfortable with issues like female circumcision and bestiality, which feature heavily. However, Cross doesn't sensationalise these topics, rather handling them with intelligence and thoughtfullness.
There is a touch of the deus ex machina about the ending, which annoyed me slightly, as I felt it jarred with the complex system of government Cross had taken pains to establish. Having said that, it was really the only logical way for Zarq's story to continue. And I'll definitely be along for the ride.