March 15, 2013

Review: Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
Published: Mira Books, 2007 (Originally 2004)
Series: Study, #1 
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Library book
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Everyone makes choices in life. Some bad, some good. It's called living, and if you want to bow out, then go right ahead. But don't do it halfway. Don't linger in whiner's limbo.

The military kingdom of Ixia enforces a zero tolerance rule with regard to causing the death of another, no matter the circumstance. Because of this, Yelena has spent the past year imprisoned for the murder of her caretaker General Brazell's son, never mind that it was done in self-defense and for the defense of others. On the eve of her hanging, she is offered a new chance at life by becoming Commander Ambrose of Ixia's food taster. Although alive and free from prison as a food taster, Yelena is hardly freed from her crimes. She becomes quite skilled at identifying poisons but is helpless against Butterfly's Dust, a deadly poison laced in her food, and the only antidote is guarded carefully by Valek, the Commander's right-hand man. Only by remaining in the castle and taking the antidote each day is Yelena able to survive. Against Butterfly's Dust, vengeful loyalists of General Brazell, and would-be killers of Commander Ambrose, Yelena is forced to face new and unforeseen challenges, all of which continue to limit her freedoms and her ability to forget about the darkness that haunts her past. 

Due to my love of Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief, I'll always be predisposed to like novels that start in a similar fashion. In Poison Study, we find our protagonist Yelena offered a reprieve from the dungeon and a hanging by serving the Commander of her nation's fairly recent military regime. After spending so much time in prison and, before then, hidden away in the estate of a military district general, Yelena understandably has a lot of adjustments to make in her new life, made all the more difficult by the fact that it is publicly known that she murdered General Brazell's son Reyad. Although it takes Yelena quite a while to reveal the reasons behind her actions, I immediately felt sympathy for her character. For her, even the simple act of survival has become riddled with complications. Brazell and his men actively seek ways to kill Yelena; Brazell claims that it's an insult to Reyad's memory that Yelena has escaped the noose. Even the other castle employees look at Yelena with disgust and derision. She's little more than a rat to them, and certainly not to be trusted. 

Against these harsh circumstances, however, Yelena is able to emerge all the stronger. She consistently works to prove (more to herself than anyone else) that she's worth something. Being a good food taster isn't enough when Yelena must count on Valek to come to her defense against those who would wish her ill, so she finds ways to learn how to defend herself. Tragedy and horror have littered Yelena's past, which makes it all the easier to wish for her luck to turn around, for something good to finally happen to her. Poison Study acts as a coming-of-age tale for Yelena, who battles against the ghost of Reyad, the knowledge of her past life, her hopes for a new life, and everyone's expectations of her present-day life. Clever and resilient, Yelena perfectly encapsulates some of my favorite characteristics in a female protagonist.

I found myself a little conflicted about the romance that develops over the course of the novel. While on a higher and more intellectual level I can begin to understand the romantic relationship that Yelena enters into, I cannot accept this on a more basic level. Her ideologies and those of her romantic interest clash. If Yelena continues to be involved with this person in the sequels, then I hope that Snyder better demonstrates how a relationship like this can be successful.

Although there is still a lot left unrevealed about the lands of Ixia and Sitia, I found Snyder's worldbuilding to sufficient enough for me to form a basic understanding of these countries, their histories, and their politics. At the surface, Ixia can be seen as simply another country where the military stepped in to overthrow a bad regime and, unfortunately, ended up creating a new government even more flawed than the previous one. The idea of uniformity among the people is an interesting one, especially in its execution within Ixia. Everyone wears uniforms that demarcate their ranks, regions, and positions. Such an emphasis on equality inevitably leads to consequences for those whose actions, behaviors, and backgrounds are different from those carefully regulated by society. Readers can see hints of that here and there, especially with the punishments against those who kill others or possess magic. The political intrigue that a novel with a world such as this engenders is multi-layered enough to pique my interest.

A final thing to note is that there seems to be a bit of reviewer discussion regarding Snyder's intended audience in Poison Study. The subject matter is heavy and dark at times (it explores death, poisons, political intrigue, and torture, after all), and the protagonist Yelena can be considered an adult in her society (she's nineteen). It definitely could have been placed in the adult fantasy genre quite easily. I hesitate assigning any sort of arbitrary audience age group to this book, however. It totally depends on what each reader is comfortable reading. I know that I would have had no problems reading this as a young teen. I guess simply making sure that readers know the type of book they're getting into before reading is always a good idea. 

Overall, I found myself very much impressed with Snyder's debut. Even if the romance was not my cup of tea, Snyder has created a readable and entertaining story, flipping certain Young Adult story tropes on their heads, which I always appreciate. There's no simple resolution or right answers in Poison Study, which contributed to its feel as a more mature novel. Despite the mixed reviews for the sequels, Magic Study and Fire Study, I definitely plan on returning to Yelena's story soon.

I read Poison Study as a read along with my friend Courtney of Courtney Reads a Lot. Yay for being able to have discussions throughout my reading process! I love being able to discuss books with her. Please also check out Courtney's review.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I really like that Yelena is 19! That is much closer to my age and I think it will make her more relatable :) I also like it when there are heavy/dark subjects in a book. Despite the fact that the romance didn't work for you, I love the sound of Yelena and the world-building. Great review.


    1. I know! I was very happy about her age haha. And it really is a great book! I don't need romance in my books, so that didn't really bother me, but I know that other people expect romance, so it was worth mentioning. Thanks and I hope you get the chance to read it someday!

  2. This series was brought up a lot as a read alike last year when Robin LaFevers' Grave Mercy came out (the audience for which was also heavily discussed due to the material). I've actually wanted to pick it up ever since, and I'm really happy to see you've also mentioned it in tandem with MWT's Queen's Thief. Yalena seems like the type of female lead I'll really enjoy, though I DO hope that the romance improves. I will read this one at some point, great review, Amanda!

    1. Hmm you know, I never considered it being similar to Grave Mercy, but now that you mentioned it I do see the similarities. I actually enjoyed this quite a bit more than Grave Mercy. And I'll link anything and everything with The Thief if I can haha (as long as they're worthy of the comparison). And yes! You need to read it, Heidi! I want to see what you think of it!

  3. I heard we're given a lot more insight on the relationship between Valek and Yelena later on so don't worry. I had some issues with it as well. Although, I do really like Valek. And wow! It never even crossed my mind that it opens just like The Thief. Crazy how I never realized that!

    I'm glad you enjoyed Poison Study, even if there were a couple of bumps in the road. I always love our read alongs and look forward to the next one!

    1. That is good to hear. :) And yes! Awesome, right? I do love my misunderstood protagonists.

      Me too! We should do another one in a month or so. :)

  4. I think this one was originally published as adult - that's where it sits at my library, but then repackaged for YA at some point. I agree that I think it can be enjoyed by either (especially older YA). I love this book! I didn't even think about the similarities to The Thief, because I read them very far apart, but I agree that there is definitely something appealing/exciting about a book that begins that ay. I agree that Ylena is immediately likeable and I love how she transforms from dirty, prisoner to a strong woman (though she always had a bit of fire). I actually LOVE Ylena and Valek together, especially that they have found a bond despite their differences. This is explored more in the later books, so maybe you'd feel better about them at that time. This is my favorite book of the series, though I think the author is writing even more than the 3 that are released.

    1. Oh really? That actually makes a lot of sense now, so thanks for the clarification, Lauren!
      And I suppose I'll come to love the romance over time, since I do prefer slow-burn romances and Yelena and Valek are nothing if not slow-burn. I think their age difference weirded me out, but it's possible they're actually not that far apart in age. And, while his decision to support the Commander over her makes sense, it made my romantic self a little bit sad.
      But I am definitely looking forward to the other books. And potentially the next ones if she continues to write about Yelena. :)


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