Themes Explored: loyalty, family, adventure, poison, taste testing, military regime, superstition, magic, lore, myths, kidnapping, slavery, death, love, secrecy, intrigue, spying, romance, destiny, self-reliance, self-preservation
Synopsis: About to be executed for murder, Yelena is offered an extraordinary reprieve. She’ll eat the best meals, have rooms in the palace—and risk assassination by anyone trying to kill the Commander of Ixia. And so Yelena chooses to become a food taster. But the chief of security, leaving nothing to chance, deliberately feeds her Butterfly’s Dust—and only by appearing for her daily antidote will she delay an agonizing death from the poison. As Yelena tries to escape her new dilemma, disasters keep mounting. Rebels plot to seize Ixia and Yelena develops magical powers she can’t control. Her life is threatened again and choices must be made. But this time the outcomes aren’t so clear. (From Goodreads)
Review: Poison Study is the first book in the Study Series and follows the life of Yelena. This is a well-crafted tale of intrigue and is Maria Snyder’s debut novel. Snyder had already published several short stories before writing a full length novel. As such, Poison Study has more polish and finesse than some other debut novels. The narrative is engrossing and moves a rather quick pace. While there are a few minor problems, the book is solidily entertaining and is a good way to wile away a few hours. I stumbled upon this book on my library’s ebook catalog. I ended up reading all the books in about two weeks and I did it on an iPod screen. That is dedication right there. What I enjoyed the most was the originality of the world and plot. While parts of the story fall into normal young adult fantasy tropes, the majority of the story was unique enough to stand out from the proverbial pack.
Yelena has been sitting in a dungeon awaiting her execution for killing General Brazell’s son. However, right before her execution, she is offered a second chance: she can either be executed or become the Commander of Ixia’s new food taster. She can either die quickly now or possibly die slowly of poison later on. Yelena chooses to become the food taster, but not everyone is pleased with this new development. Brazell’s followers are awaiting a chance to kill Yelena and the court is full of enemies. Furthermore, Valek, the second in command, has taken an unprecedented interest in Yelena. He teaches Yelena to distinguish all the different poisons and also keeps her from escaping. Valek has given Yelena a dose of Butterfly Dust, the most potent poison in existence. Every day she has to take the antidote and if she misses one dose she will die. To make her life even more complicated. Yelena apparently has latent magical powers that have suddenly deiced to emerge. Not only can she not control this new power, magic of any kind is illegal in Ixia and anyone suspected of using magic is executed. Now Yelena must rely on her natural wit and developing magic in order to protect herself from threats both inside and outside the castle.
The majority of the story is set in the former kingdom of Ixia, which is now a fascist regime that is run by a militaristic leader. Commander Ambrose is firm but not brutal. He rose to power by overthrowing the former monarch and all the corrupt magicians. He has since put into place a new set of laws known as the Code of Behavior, which divides the land into military districts. All citizens are required to wear uniforms and work at assigned jobs. This system keeps people from rebelling and so far no one has dared to breach the Code. Making magic and any form of killing, even in self-defense, is a capital crime. This is the isolated world Yelena ends up living within. One of my largest complaints with Poison Study is the under developed out world building. Snyder provides enough detail to intrigue readers but does not provide quite enough to make it feel real. I kept wanting to learn more about the politics and culture of the new and old Ixia.
What really bothered me is I never found the political structure to be all that convincing. What has made the population so amenable to the inflexible Code of Behavior? There are hints about the cruelty of the former monarch but Ambrose is not necessarily nicer. The main complaint everyone had about the former monarch and his magicians was that they were cruel and corrupt. Yet how is totalitarianism any better? And Snyder never explains how required uniforms and assigned jobs help combat Ambrose’s pathological hatred of magic. What is missing from the narrative is a description of how the everyday Ixian feels about Ambrose’s rule and the ban on magic. Do they agree with Ambrose or think he is just as crazy as the monarch he deposed? Even though the rest of the books delve into this details a little, I would have liked some deeper world development in the first installment.
Commander Ambrose has an oddly bipolar personality that is suitably explained in the narrative. But it does nothing to add clarity to his views on government. For a man who brought down a monarchy, Ambrose is surprisingly susceptible to magic. Nearly anyone with some kind of magical ability is able to influence and manipulate Ambrose without him knowing. Snyder offers s decent explanation for this alter on but it still seems incongruous. I would think Ambrose would have taken measures to protect himself from magical influences just in case a malicious magician suddenly appeared in Ixia. In some regards Valek is a more believable ruler. He is decisive and has a finger on the pulse of the country. His eyes and ears are spread throughout the country and he knows things before anyone else. Valek is a rather one-dimensional character in Poison Study. But he becomes more developed throughout the series. However, he still seems more like a caricature than an actual character sometimes. However, he does provide a good foil to Yelena and Commander Ambrose. Where Yelana is naïve, Valek is cynical. When Ambrose is easily manipulated, Valek is nearly unswayable. Snyder does a good job giving all the main characters’ distinctive voices and world views. Even when placed in similar situations, everyone reacts in a distinctive manner.
Yelena is a great heroine. Snyder writes in such a way that she feels like an actual person. Her reactions and actions seem believable for a nineteen year old stuck in a stressful environment. Also, Yelena makes both good and bad choices and has to learn from her sometime disastrous mistakes. Snyder wisely decided not to turn Yelena into a super heroine who manages to overcome any and all obstacles. As a youth Yelena practiced acrobatics and ends up using this skill to swing from the treetops in order to escape a pursuer. This sequence Nevers feels implausible or over-the-top. This is because Snyder does not use Yelana’s skill as a launching pad for a bunch of ridiculous action scenes resembling something out of a Marvel film. When Yelena discovers her magical abilities, she is faced with a loyalty crisis. Over the source of the story she slowly develops feelings for Valek and respect for Commander Ambrose. I liked this aspect of Yelana’s personality and that she is genuinely conflicted about her role in society. There are no easy choices in life and each one will impact her existence in different ways. Overall, this is an excellent start to a solid escapist fantasy fiction series.
Poison Study, Mira, 2005, ISBN 9780778324331