Maria V. Snyder
Young Adult / Fantasy
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…
Rating: 4.5 / 5
Normally I’m a slow reader. I like to take my time with novels, even when I enjoy what I’m reading. But I was so engrossed by Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study that I finished it in 3 days. Does the word “unputdownable” exist? If it didn’t before, it does now!
Poison Study introduces readers to Yelena Zaltana, a young woman unaware of her origins and about to be executed for murdering her benefactor’s only son. At the last moment, she’s offered a choice: die by the noose, or take on the position as Commander Ambrose’s food taster – and risk potential poisoning each time. As you can tell from the book’s official summary, Yelena accepts the job offer but with additional consequences. The story then quickly morphs into a constant fight for survival for Yelena, from stomaching the food-tasting / poison training to fleeing her former benefactor’s henchmen to simply figuring out who she can trust. In the meantime, she finds herself caught in political mysteries and grappling with the knowledge that her greatest strengths may in fact be magical powers emerging. Not to mention that magic is forbidden in the land where Yelena lives – so if the wrong people discover her powers, she could still be put to death. How’s that for continuously raising the stakes?
Yelena herself is one of the most fascinating literary heroines I’ve “met” in a while. She’s curious, resourceful, observant, persistent to the point of stubbornness – and she’s not without her flaws and emotional wounds. As Poison Study goes on, readers learn more about Yelena’s past and what drove her to kill. The terror in her flashbacks was so palpable that I was frightened for Yelena even though I knew she had already survived the abuse. [WARNING: Some of the torture descriptions are quite graphic.] Thus, Poison Study becomes a tale of rebirth and finding the inner strength to exorcise one’s demons.
What surprised me most about Poison Study is how multifaceted it is for a YA novel. It’s got action, suspense, humor (there are some great laugh-out-loud lines from Yelena’s friends and self-appointed bodyguards Ari and Janco), political intrigue, and romance. That last element comes quite late in the story, but readers can see it coming. Snyder offers peeks of Yelena’s blossoming feelings for Valek, her boss and Commander Ambrose’s security and intelligence chief, as well as hints of Valek’s genuine concern and fondness for her. As a result, the love story never trumps the rest of the plot. Instead, it’s delicately woven in, with moments in the spotlight when necessary. It gives the impression that Yelena’s not head-over-heels obsessed with Valek in a sexual or juvenile way, but embracing real love with maturity and nervousness given the circumstances.
The criticisms I have for Poison Study are few and relatively minor. First, while Snyder shines when it comes to description and showing (as opposed to telling), she does over-show at times. One sentence for a physical or physiological reaction to something is plenty, in my opinion. Also, some of the threats by the novel’s antagonists seemed over-the-top or too melodramatic. Lastly, to echo one critique from my review of Snyder’s Storm Glass, I was confused about Poison Study’s time period. The modern language jarred a bit with the more primitive elements such as forms of transportation (walking, horse-riding) and lack of technology. Maybe it’s an alternate current-day reality?
Otherwise, I absolutely adored Poison Study. Even days after I’ve finished the book, my mind wanders back to the story and I find myself picking it up and re-reading certain passages. I guess I’m going to have to read the entire story again! By the way, don’t let Poison Study’s classification of YA Fantasy fool you. The emotionally raw subject matter – and the deft, graceful manner in which Snyder handles it all – transcends the expectations of typical YA literature. Yes, fans of YA fantasy will love Poison Study, but this book has enough cross-over appeal that I’d recommend it to adult readers of fantasy as well.
Oh, and yes, I plan to read the rest of the Study trilogy – as soon as I get my mitts on the other two books!
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Coming Soon: Come back Monday for my new Grub Street article on manuscript critiques!