Imagine you’re awaiting your execution in a pitch black, stinking dungeon. Suddenly a group of guards spring you from your cell and deliver you off to an emotionless, stern man who offers to spare your life on one condition. Surely you would agree no matter the consequences, right? But then this man, the country’s security chief, says that instead of being executed for murder, you will act as the Commander’s personal food taster. It will be your job to test each and every dish for lethal poisons, and any bite could be your last.
Suddenly that cinnamon bun doesn’t look so appealing, does it?
Nineteen-year-old Yelena, the main character of Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder is in this exact situation, and naturally she chooses to become the food taster. After killing the son of General Brazell during a night of passionate fury, Yelena is sentenced to death by hanging as is required by the country of Ixia’s Code of Behavior. Murder of any kind, motivated by self-defense or otherwise, is outlawed here, and Yelena was to be the latest criminal to pay the price before the Commander’s right hand man, Valek, proposed she replace the food taster who had recently died.
Yelena’s position in the royal court allows her to make new friends and new enemies, but no foe is as threatening as Brazell himself, who thirsts to end her life and avenge his son. And if all that wasn’t enough, Yelena slowly realizes that she has magical abilities that begin to manifest when she is in danger. Magicians in Ixia are considered the vilest of criminals and killed immediately. If Yelena’s abilities are discovered, she will face execution yet again—only this time, no one will step forward to spare her. Worse still, it will likely be Valek, for whom she is reluctantly developing feelings, who will complete the task.
There’s a lot going on in this book, and Yelena’s various conflicts create a palpable tension that pervades the whole novel. Unanswered questions and my own hunches kept me reading voraciously, but the story lacked a bit in pacing. Although every scene and character eventually plays a significant role in the plot, I didn’t realize this at first; while reading, I felt as if I were wading through a lot of pointless filler. Luckily everything makes sense by the conclusion, but I still feel that Snyder could’ve cut out a lot of the in-between scenes that killed some of my enthusiasm for the resolution.
The romance between Valek and Yelena develops slowly over the course of the novel, which I appreciate—too many YA novels try to squeeze too much emotion into too few pages, with the end result being that the relationship feels forced. Although Valek seems a bit uptight (and old–there’s at least 12 years between them), he’s the perfect match for Yelena in terms of intelligence and wit. When they finally hook up in the end, I cheered—but the way they instantly begin fawning over each other and calling each other ‘love’ seems false and clumsy. It feels as if Snyder is trying to compensate for 300 some pages without any romance and she sacrifices some very meaningful characterization in the process.
In all, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder is a worthy medieval fantasy with a kickass heroine, but although I enjoyed the experience, the book fails to leave a lasting impression. Poison Study has two sequels, Magic Study and Fire Study, but I am content in enjoying the first and leaving it at that.
Sydnee is a freshman at Wayne State University pursuing a degree in Journalism. She is obsessed with hunky heroes, explosions, melodrama, and magic—all things that make a frequent appearance in her stories. Her blog is http://syd-dreams.blogspot.com. Find her on Figment at http://figment.com/users/62-Sydnee-Thompson.