Overall, I am impressed with Maria Snyder‘s first novel, Poison Study. It was well written and the main characters are likeable, complex, and engaging. The characters of the “supporting staff” are also well done. The dialogue is realistic and the writing style is pleasant and unpretentious. The pace is quick, there is political intrigue, spying, treachery, fighting, forgiveness, personal growth, and romance (although the single love scene was confusing and a bit corny).
However, the plot was somewhat predictable and there were few surprises. Also, the setting of the story is confusing. Chamber pots, swords, and castles with dungeons suggest a medieval setting, but then there are factories, camouflage, disinfectants, briefcases, pills, and dialogue that doesn’t seem to fit that setting.
I was also slightly disappointed with the ending. Among all of the other life changes that Yelena is dealing with, she also finds out she’s a magician and that she needs to be trained so she doesn’t burn out the magic power source by “pulling power” incorrectly. This sets up a nice sequel (called Magic Study), but Yelena has also just recently learned to be an expert fighter, and now we throw in magician, too, and it just seems a bit over the top. She’s just too perfect. Except that she’s a murderer. Oh, wait, but when she murdered that guy, she saved many innocents from the torture she went through… I guess she is perfect.
All in all, I think Maria Snyder is a very promising author with a good imagination and a nice writing style. I will give the second book a try and I will certainly take a look at whatever she publishes in the future.
Poison Study was a surprise to me. I picked it up because Amazon recommended it for me, but reading the description and most of the review made me think that it was going to be a waste. In this case, I was pleasantly surprised.
Maria Snyder does a very good job of introducing a character in a dire, horrifying situation: Yelena is set to be executed for murder and is offered a choice between facing immediate death or accepting a position as the food taster for the Commander, who is the ruler of the nation she lives in. Snyder builds an interesting world — something like Sparta except women are not just for bearing children.
Yelena is well written and stays true to character with realistic fears, anxiety, and stubbornness. Surrounding characters are interesting, but they don’t upstage Yelena. They are not all equally well written (there are a few glaring inconsistencies), but on the whole it’s well put together.
Maria Snyder has a good voice for fantasy and the story’s romance doesn’t interfere with the plot — it’s not a romance novel. My only complaint was the author’s need to address a social, societal issue that didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story. Gender issues in fantasy literature can be troublesome, but Maria Snyder doesn’t get so wrapped up in them that she turns the story into an evocative essay instead of a fictional work.
Yelena, plucked from the dungeon of the kingdom of Ixia just before her scheduled execution, is given a chance to live if she will accept the job of food taster for the Commander, the military leader who has taken control of Ixia. Her new boss is Valek, the Commander’s head of security and a trained assassin. Valek trains Yelena to recognize all fifty-two of the known poisons in their world.
It’s even odds as to whether Yelena will be killed by Valek’s ruthless teaching methods (which involve taste testing all of these poisons), eating some poisoned food or drink intended for the Commander, or getting assassinated by the minions of General Brazell, whose son she killed a year ago for reasons Yelena refuses to divulge, out of a combined sense of pride and knowing that under Ixia’s laws, self-defense is not considered as an excuse for killing someone.
Yelena tries to protect herself and her heart, but finds herself torn by the desire for friendship, even when it backfires on her:
“When you warned me that you would test me from time to time, I thought you meant spiking my food. But it seems there is more than one way to poison a person’s heart, and it doesn’t even require a meal.”
This is an intriguing YA fantasy, somewhat on the dark side, with death, rape, violence, permanent brainwashing all playing a role in the story. Yelena is an admirable main character, plucky and determined to find a way to escape at some point. Valek is a dark character, but honorable and attractive in his own way. Other than the main characters and a couple of others, most of the characters are stock characters and tend to be drawn in all black or all white.
The world-building was good, for the most part, if not terribly unique, but there were a few cracks in it that didn’t feel natural to me. What kind of society wouldn’t accept self-defense or accident as a valid reason for killing someone, but insist on publicly hanging everyone who causes a death, regardless of the circumstances? Why would Yelena refuse to tell Valek why she killed General Brazell’s son? Why would the Commander [highlight to view spoiler] pass a death sentence on Yelena at the end, right after she saved him, just so he could keep his intolerably strict rules? Even though there were reasons given in the book, these things just felt like plot devices to me. On the other hand, there were some compelling plot developments as well. I really enjoyed Yelena’s day as a pretend fugitive, trying to avoid being captured by men in training, and the danger that faces Yelena and the country of Ixia had me turning the pages in a hurry.
I give this book a solid three stars. It didn’t blow me away, but it entertained me and held my attention while I was reading it, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of books.
My taste in fantasy runs to the sprawling political-intrigue epic with a bit of magic for spice, and books get extra points with me for elegant, lush prose. Poison Study is sort of a “lite” example of the subgenre when compared to my favorites (A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, KUSHIEL’S LEGACY, MALEDICTE, to name a few) both in terms of plot and in terms of style. The plot of Poison Study is relatively simple by comparison, and the prose is perfectly serviceable but not seductive. Still, it’s a fun bit of brain candy, for the most part.
What I liked: The parts about poison tasting, which were fascinating and left me wanting to know more about poisons and food tasters throughout history. I also liked the ambiguity of the government Yelena serves. It’s frighteningly totalitarian in some ways, and in other ways it’s superior to the corrupt monarchy it replaced, and while the law states that there are no exceptions to justice, there are plenty of secret ways around the prescribed sentences for those who are worthy or lucky.
The romance aspect doesn’t bother me. I’m not a member of the “Get This Stinkin’ Romance Out Of My Fantasy!” club. What I didn’t like, though: Yelena is too perfect; she’s the type of heroine who is loved and lusted after by everyone and who is good at everything. Yet, she can be annoyingly clueless at figuring out the agendas of people around her. I also find it disturbing that the love scene is vague and flowery while the rape scene is explicit. If both scenes had been written in the same style, I wouldn’t have an issue; as it is, it feels like loving sex is being glossed over and rape glorified.
Gripes aside, however, I have begun reading the sequel, and will probably read the third book as well. While Poison Study is not perfect, it’s clear that Maria Snyder can spin a good yarn, and she’ll improve with experience.
The Chronicles of Ixia (Soulfinders) — (2005-2017) Publisher: 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.