A Writing Study on Assassins, Flashbacks, and Emotions (A Guest Post & Giveaway by Fantasy Author Maria V. Snyder)

maria-snyder-guest-post-banner

Oh, am I excited about our returning guest! Fantasy author Maria V. Snyder stopped by here 2 years ago for an interview on SHADOW STUDY, her fourth Study novel and the return of Yelena and Valek, her two most beloved characters. Today, the series ends with DAWN STUDY, and Maria was gracious enough to take time out of her schedule to write a guest post. So, let’s celebrate DAWN STUDY’s book birthday with a “study” of master spy-assassin Valek, his growth since SHADOW STUDY, and the challenges of writing from his perspective. 

When my first book, Poison Study, was published over (*cough*) eleven (*cough*) years ago, I had no idea I’d go on to write five more Study books and the spin-off Glass Series. Nine total books and four short stories! I’d also didn’t know that Valek would become my readers’ favorite character (according to an unscientific Facebook poll).

While planning Poison Study, I knew Valek would be Ixia’s Chief of Security and the Commander’s assassin. He’d be distant, cold, and good at killing people with all types of weapons – basically, a stereotypical bad ass.  After that, I didn’t really consider him to be more than an antagonist to my main protagonist, Yelena.  In fact, I thought if there would be a romance in the book, it would most likely be between Yelena and the Commander. Yeah, well, I’m not the best at planning books, and I tend to discover the true story as I write.

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My Eleven Favorite Literary Heroes

After compiling a list of my favorite literary heroines back in March, it’s only fair to devote a post to their male counterparts. Except that, well, I forgot about it for a while, until Sarah J. Higbee recently shared her own list. Thank you for the reminder, Sarah!

Featuring the same number of heroes here as I did with heroines proved tough. It’s not that I don’t like or admire male protagonists. I just happen to be drawn more to stories with female leads. But once I took a close look at my bookshelves, the eleven male characters I eventually picked started jumping out at me. (Not literally, but you know what I mean.) And I’ll admit, some of them won’t surprise you at all. 😉

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Recent Reads: “Shadow Study” by Maria V. Snyder

Shadow Study Shadow Study
Maria V. Snyder
Fantasy / Young Adult
409 pages

Synopsis:

New York Times bestselling author Maria V. Snyder wowed readers with Poison Study, the unforgettable story of poison taster Yelena. Now she’s back with a new tale of intrigue. 

Once, only her own life hung in the balance… 

Oddly enough, when Yelena was a poison taster, her life was simpler. But she’d survived to become a vital part of the balance of power between rival countries Ixia and Sitia. Now she uses her magic to keep the peace in both lands — and protect her relationship with Valek. 

Suddenly, though, they are beset on all sides by those vying for power through politics and intrigue. Valek’s job and his life are in danger. As Yelena tries to uncover the scope of these plots, she faces a new challenge: her magic is blocked. She must keep that a secret — or her enemies will discover just how vulnerable she really is — while searching for who or what is responsible for neutralizing her powers. 

Yes, the days of tasting poisons were much simpler. And certainly not as dangerous…

Rating: 4 / 5

Confession: I hugged my copy of Shadow Study when it arrived in the mail. Yes, I was that excited to read it. Then again, Poison Study was one of my favorite reads of last year, and I devoured Magic Study and Fire Study a couple months later solely so I could stay on top of this series starting with the fourth book. So here it is, the newest adventures of former poison taster and current magician-diplomat Yelena Zaltana, and I’m thrilled with how it turned out.

Shadow Study takes place about 6 years after the original conclusion of the Study trilogy. Yelena is acting as political liaison between the countries of Ixia and Sitia and has fully embraced her role as a Soulfinder. She’s also still with Valek, her soulmate and the famed Ixian spy-assassin. No sooner does the couple reunite in Chapter 1 that crisis strikes – literally. Valek is ordered home by Ixia’s Commander to address the country’s growing smuggler network and is confronted by a young, hot-shot assassin who wants Valek’s job. Yelena remains in Sitia to investigate a past enemy’s escape from prison – and is grappling with the sudden loss of her magic. Given how many enemies Yelena has, she’s in great danger if they find out how vulnerable she is.

Like Snyder’s other novels, Shadow Study is impossible to put down thanks to its suspenseful chapter endings and urgent prose. Also, the first bit of conflict pops up within the first couple pages, so Snyder gives us reasons right away to worry about Yelena and the other characters. I was also fascinated by how interwoven the conflict threads became as the story went along. Each chapter drops hints that widen the overall scope. Once I put the pieces together, my mouth dropped open. And for the record, I’m not much of a plot-twist guesser, but there were two in particular that I guessed correctly – and both will have a HUGE impact on the next two Study books.

One welcome change between the three older Study novels and Shadow Study is the POV narration style. From Poison Study to Fire Study, it was from Yelena’s first-person perspective. With Shadow Study, Snyder alternates between Yelena (first person), Valek (third person), and Valek’s assistant and Yelena’s friend Janco (third person). While Yelena’s the one who drew me into this series, Valek’s sections steal the show here. Readers finally learn more about his past, from his early days as an assassin-in-training at the School Of Night And Shadow, to the moment where he enacts his ultimate revenge. It’s a fascinating trip down memory lane that explains Valek’s unique and lethal brew of logic, meticulousness, and cunning. Readers also get to see the beating heart beneath, and feel for Valek as his loyalties become entangled.

Janco’s POV, on the other hand… Sometimes he was so funny that I’d burst out laughing. Other times, he was downright annoying, and I wanted to smack him. Janco’s perspective is necessary, though, since he’s in a number of important scenes where Yelena and Valek aren’t present. But at the same time, I feel like I learned very little about Janco, especially in comparison to what I learned about Valek.

A couple other things about Shadow Study threw me off. First, there were times where the timing for one character’s POV wasn’t synchronized with the timing for another character’s sections. I’m not sure why this caught my attention. It hasn’t for other multiple POV books like George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Fire And Ice novels. But for some reason, I noticed it more with Shadow Study, and it jarred me a little. Also, Yelena’s independent streak drives me nuts sometimes. It’s not a complete drawback; I like that Yelena is decisive and follows her instincts, but she rarely asks for help. So when she strikes out on her own, I always know something bad is going to happen.

I could say so much more about Shadow Study, including the characters who returned from the previous Study novels (and also the Glass trilogy), and the new characters we meet. But the point is, Shadow Study is a fantastic new installment to the Yelena Zaltana saga. It’s tightly written, packed with tension and action, and full of new reasons to love its memorable characters. I’m still reeling a bit from the bombshell ending (“cliffhanger” doesn’t quite fit for this one – trust me) and the other revelations that emerge – but that just means lots of crucial choices and juicy conflict for Night Study and Dawn Study. And I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds from here!

Shadow Study will be out tomorrow (Tuesday, February 24th) in North America. Are you looking forward to reading it? If you’ve been lucky enough to read a pre-pub copy, what did you think of it? Let me know by commenting below or visiting the same review at Goodreads and Amazon.

Also, I’m hosting a giveaway for a signed U.S. copy of Shadow Study! Click here for my recent interview with Maria, then scroll to the bottom for contest details. The giveaway ends Wednesday, March 4th at midnight EST.

Interview with Maria V. Snyder + Shadow Study Giveaway!

Maria V Snyder

I’m thrilled to have Maria V. Snyder for our next Author Interview! Maria was one of my favorite “new” writers (or rather, new to me) of last year, and her debut novel Poison Study ended up at #2 on my 10 Favorite Reads of 2014 list. Besides Poison Study, I gobbled up the rest of her Study Series (Magic Study and Fire Study), which follows poison taster / magician / diplomat Yelena Zaltana as she confronts her past, learns about her magical powers, and kicks some serious butt. Next week, Maria releases her thirteenth novel, Shadow Study – which means Yelena and her assassin-spy soulmate Valek are back for more adventures! Plus, as you may have noticed from the title, we have a very special contest at the end of this article!

So, read on to learn more about Shadow Study, how it’s different from Maria’s previous Study novels, and a few things about Maria herself, including her writing influences, her favorite literary heroines, and what she’d do – or avoid doing – if she ever visited Yelena’s world. Also, if you’re interested, come back on Monday, February 23rd for my review of Shadow Study!

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Waiting On Wednesday Vol. 1: “Shadow Study” by Maria V. Snyder

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Today is my first Waiting On Wednesday post! Waiting On Wednesday is a weekly event hosted by Breaking The Spine that spotlights upcoming book releases that I’m looking forward to. My WOW postings won’t be weekly, but will come on Wednesdays that are open in terms of my blogging schedule here and elsewhere and when I add a yet-to-be-published book to my wishlist. 😉

So, here’s what I’m waiting for this Wednesday: Shadow Study, the upcoming fourth novel in Maria V. Snyder’s Study series! Poison Study (Book #1) is one of my favorite books of all time; and while the other two books (Magic Study and Fire Study) weren’t quite as good IMO, I’m still fascinated by the world of magic and constant danger and political intrigue that Snyder’s created. Yelena is also a fantastic protagonist: persistent, clever, resourceful, and loyal to the people she cares about – especially her long-time love, the infamous spy-assassin Valek. And judging from the blurb below, things are about to get interesting once again for both Yelena and Valek. 😀

Shadow Study

Shadow Study
Maria V. Snyder
Fantasy / Young Adult
Publication Date: February 25, 2015
Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Goodreads

Synopsis:

New York Times bestselling author Maria V. Snyder wowed readers with Poison Study, the unforgettable story of poison taster Yelena. Now she’s back with a new tale of intrigue.

Once, only her own life hung in the balance…

Oddly enough, when Yelena was a poison taster, her life was simpler. But she’d survived to become a vital part of the balance of power between rival countries Ixia and Sitia. Now she uses her magic to keep the peace in both lands—and protect her relationship with Valek.

Suddenly, though, they are beset on all sides by those vying for power through politics and intrigue. Valek’s job and his life are in danger. As Yelena tries to uncover the scope of these plots, she faces a new challenge: her magic is blocked. She must keep that a secret—or her enemies will discover just how vulnerable she really is—while searching for who or what is responsible for neutralizing her powers.

Yes, the days of tasting poisons were much simpler. And certainly not as dangerous…

What book(s) are you waiting on this Wednesday? Are you also looking forward to Shadow Study?

Recent Reads: “Fire Study” by Maria V. Snyder

Fire Study cover

Fire Study
Maria V. Snyder
Young Adult / Fantasy

Summary:

The apprenticeship is over – now the real test has begun.

When word that Yelena is a Soulfinder – able to capture and release souls – spreads like wildfire, people grow uneasy. Already Yelena’s unusual abilities and past have set her apart. As the Council debates Yelena’s fate, she receives a disturbing message: a plot is rising against her homeland, led by a murderous sorcerer she has defeated before.

Honor sets Yelena on a path that will test the limits of her skills, and the hope of reuniting with her beloved spurs her onward. Her journey is fraught with allies, enemies, lovers, and would-be assassins, each of questionable loyalty. Yelena will have but one chance to prove herself – and save the land she holds dear.

Rating: 3.25 / 5

The best way to describe how I felt when I started reading Maria V. Snyder’s Fire Study is “cautiously optimistic.” I adored Poison Study, the first novel of her best-selling Study series; and while I generally liked the sequel Magic Study, I was disappointed by its inconsistencies and overwhelmed by the staggering number of antagonists. Yet I didn’t want to give up on this series. So, I plunged into the concluding Fire Study – and came away relatively satisfied with the ending.

Fire Study tells a stronger, less congested story than Magic Study. The main conflict is clearer, the number of villains more manageable, and Yelena’s inner turmoil more palpable. This novel shows Yelena at her worst sometimes, which can be frustrating for the reader. Characters who are stubborn, dismissive, and constantly pushing their loved ones away aren’t easy to root for. But trust me when I suggest – no, urge – you to stick with Yelena and finish the book. Her turnaround starts with about 100 pages left, and the payoff is both a reward and a huge relief.

Also, I admire how Snyder walks a fine “relationship tightrope” throughout Fire Study. She forces Yelena to screw up, raise her guard, and find reasons to distrust just about everyone, even the people she cares about most. The friction between Yelena and Valek at one point is so thick, I was afraid they’d call it quits! Funny thing is, I enjoyed that kind of tension between them, especially since their relationship seemed too smooth and perfect in Magic Study.

I can’t explain how annoyed I was by Yelena’s behavior toward her mentor Moon Man, however. Yes, his advice was often cryptic, and I can see how it would take time to appreciate his kind of guidance. But, the biting sarcasm and immaturity Yelena would spout in response was grating on me well before the halfway point. Eventually Yelena learns to accept and interpret Moon Man’s ambiguity, but I wish it happened a little sooner.

Even though Fire Study tells (in my opinion) a better story than its predecessor, the writing in this final book is the weakest in the trilogy. There’s an alarming lack of variety in word choice; Snyder often repeats phrases to describe certain physical or vocal reactions that convey emotion. Many of the chapter transitions threw me off as well. Some felt forced or jarring; others just… didn’t seem like appropriate spots to split chapters. Usually an author’s writing improves with each novel, but Fire Study feels lazy in technique compared to the first two books. And as a writer who pays attention to technique, this was a huge disappointment for me.

Ultimately, however, Fire Study brings Yelena’s tale to a climactic and compelling conclusion. It’s a trial by fire, literally for Yelena as she tests the limits of her powers and the heights of her courage, and figuratively for the reader. For the first time, we truly see Yelena as her own worst enemy – and the trick is to continue caring about her, even when we want to reach through the pages and wring her neck. Personally I’m glad I kept my faith in Yelena and in this story despite the aggravation. And though I hope next year’s Shadow Study improves on Fire Study, my anticipation for the new Study novels hasn’t been swayed.

Have you read Fire Study? What did you think of it? If you haven’t read it yet, do you think you might check it out based on what you’ve read above? Let me know by commenting below or visiting the same review at Amazon or Goodreads.

Recent Reads: “Magic Study” by Maria V. Snyder

Maria Snyder Magic StudyMagic Study
Maria V. Snyder
Young Adult / Fantasy

Synopsis:

With her greatest enemy dead, and on her way to be reunited with the family she’d been stolen from long ago, Yelena should be pleased. But though she has gained her freedom, she can’t help feeling isolated in Sitia. Her Ixian background has changed her in many ways – and her newfound friends and relatives don’t think it’s for the better….

Despite the turmoil, she’s eager to start her magic training – especially as she’s been given one year to harness her power or be put to death. But her plans take a radical turn when she becomes involved with a plot to reclaim Ixia’s throne for a lost prince – and gets entangled in powerful rivalries with her fellow magicians.

If that wasn’t bad enough, it appears her brother would love to see her dead. Luckily, Yelena has some old friends to help her with all her new enemies….

Rating: 3 / 5

After devouring Poison Study earlier this year, I’m on a mission to finish Maria V. Snyder’s first Study trilogy. (That way, I’ll be caught up before the second Study trilogy kicks off in February 2015.) Like with its predecessor, Magic Study was impossible for me to put down. However, unlike Poison Study, this book sucked me into a love-hate relationship. Not a fun bond to have with a book, but the “love” side (well, “like” is more appropriate) tips the balance in the end.

Magic Study continues the story of former poison taster Yelena Zaltana as she returns to her birthplace of Sitia to reunite with her family and begin her magician training. Within a few chapters, all hell breaks loose. Yelena endures conflict after conflict with countless Sitians, each with their own agenda or negative judgment of her. She also faces her own struggles, from naivety about magic and her homeland, to learning who she can trust. How does she overcome it all? Without giving away much: By being the brave, resourceful, persistent, and resilient heroine who won over readers the first time around.

Magic Study can be overwhelming at times, however. Certain characters completely drop out of the story after Yelena rescues them, and Snyder’s reliance on torture as plot-fuel is starting to curdle my stomach. Not to mention the sheer number of antagonists that Yelena’s forced to deal with here made my head spin. After a while, it was hard to tell what the story’s main external plot was. I do have a favorite Magic Study villain, though: Cahil, the young man who claims to be a descendent of Ixia’s last king (who was slain by Yelena’s soulmate, the infamous assassin-spy Valek). Cahil is brash, proud, and an inexperienced leader. Yet he’s also vulnerable and loyal to his family and country. There was a point in Magic Study where I thought, “Hey, he’s not such a bad guy after all.” Then he’d revert to idiotic madness and vengeance when things didn’t go his way, just to prove me wrong – and I loved it. *lol*

One aspect of Magic Study I enjoyed was the change in setting. Sitia has more diverse terrain and a more tropical climate than Ixia. Deserts, striking colors, and jungle treehouses don’t appear in fantasy stories very often. The Citadel and the Magicians’ Keep are fascinating as well, with ornate architecture, lavish decorations, and a massive market that introduces Yelena to disparities in wealth and social class that didn’t exist in Ixia. My mind’s eye thrived on these visual exercises, yet my brain couldn’t grasp Snyder’s method for naming Sitians. Some citizens have exotic names (Esau, Zitora, Tula) that matched the vibrant, magical culture. Others (Dax, Cahil, Fisk) don’t fit it at all. Some readers may not mind this, but as a fantasy writer I think it’s important that every aspect of a story’s world-building makes sense – and when inconsistencies like this pop up, it forces me to start questioning the story as a whole.

A number of reviews I’ve read on Magic Study voiced their disappointment with Valek’s limited involvement. As much as I adore Valek, I see why his absence is necessary. Yelena needs time and distance away from her beloved to find her life path. Even Valek acknowledged this just before Yelena fled for Sitia at the end of Poison Study (“Yelena, you need to learn… you need to spread your wings and see how far you can fly.” Love that quote, by the way!) Funny thing is, I’m not a huge fan of Yelena and Valek’s relationship in Magic Study. Whenever they’re together, they’re either plotting Yelena’s next move, engaging in combat, or making love. Sure, it moves the plot along – but don’t they do anything else??

I apologize if reading this review feels an awful lot like a seesaw ride – but that jarring rhythm mirrors my feelings about Magic Study. At times I liked this book a lot. Other times, something irritated me and made me wonder what possessed Snyder to put it in the story. For the most part, though, I was happy to return to Yelena’s world and follow the next phase of her journey. That might be why I refuse to give up on Snyder and her Study series just yet. Fire Study is next in my TBR pile, and I’m still excited about Shadow Study coming out in a few months. So, I’m just going to hope that Magic Study is a case of the “middle-novel syndrome” and things improve from here. I guess I’ll find out soon enough, won’t I?

Have you read Magic Study? What did you think of it? If you haven’t read it yet, do you think you might check it out based on what you’ve read above? Let me know by commenting below or visiting the same review at Amazon or Goodreads.