Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
Published: Mira Books, 2007 (Originally 2004)
Series: Study, #1
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Library book
Goodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble
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.