I’m leaving town for a few days and won’t have much time to write reviews or post anything. The latest entry in my Fluffy-Summer-Travel-Reading series is Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder (I also didn’t think I could do The Moonstone justice in a short review).
I found a surprising number of different covers for this book, so I’ve copied them at the end of the post. The one to the right is my favorite, which one’s yours?
Here’s the description from Goodreads (you can see I’m taking shortcuts here):
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…
I enjoyed the book and found a lot of it very original, which is rare in a lot of fantasy books. Yelena is a strong character who has to wrestle with a lot of demons and fight to find her place in the world. I liked how she develops throughout the book, from someone who is just grateful to be alive and well-treated, even though basically a slave, to someone who has growing power and dignity. Snyder gives Yelena a well-developed history that makes her a sympathetic and unique character.
I also really enjoyed the political issues raised in the book. Yelena works for the Commander, who is at first seen as a tyrant who overthrew the last king and killed all his relatives and advisors. But we gradually come to see the Commander as a more nuanced ruler. Politics, trade and commerce are important in the country of Ixia, which made it a much more real place.
The side characters in the book – Rand, Valek, and Ari among others – are also well-developed, although I wanted more from Valek’s character. Valek is Yelena’s trainer and basically her captor. She lives in his room (mostly for her protection from thugs who hate her) and he doles out an antidote to poison each day that keeps her alive but enslaved. Their relationship, based on distrust and power and captivity, is an interesting one.
On the other hand, we hear from the other characters about all the fearful, horrible things Valek has done as chief to the Commander. We’re not sure what’s true anymore than Yelena does. But I did think Valek’s character disappointed by the end of the book. I wanted more moral ambiguity, more of him being caught between his political responsibilities and sympathy for Yelena. Instead he ends up feeling watered-down. But saying any more would tell you too much of the plot.
One of the biggest flaws in the book (and it’s still a good read) is that Snyder sets up this really compelling story about what it’s like to be a food-taster. Yelena has to learn to nibble, swirl, inhale, etc (like drinking a good glass of wine) and use every sense to detect the slightest wrong taste in the Commander’s food. If she succeeds, she saves the Commander’s life but could die herself. Her job is to tell the world with her last gasping breath what poison she tasted. As the title suggests, Yelena has to really study to get this right.
But Snyder leads us pretty far from the Poison Taster story. Yes, there’s magic and intrigue, betrayal, love, and even acrobatics. But the story kind of loses focus for me. Understandably, Yelena’s “job” doesn’t take up much of her day, so she has to do other things.
And the love story is on the weak side. Okay the very weak side. I just didn’t get there.
This book had many of the fantasy genre tropes I talked about with Magic Lost, Trouble Found, but it still has a much more original story.
As promised, alternate covers of the book: