Poison Study, by Maria V. Snyder

>> Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I was tempted to read Poison Study (excerpt), by Maria V. Snyder by a recent spate of very positive reviews in the blogs I visit. Oh, it was in my TBR already, and I meant to get to it sooner or later, but the raves brought it up.

Love the cover, BTW. The Luna line always has the best ones.

CHOOSE: A QUICK DEATH OR SLOW POISON. About to be executed for murder, Yelena is offered a 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 dilemma, disasters keep mounting. Rebels plot to seize Ixia and she develops magical powers she can't control. Her life's at stake again and choices must be made. But this time the outcomes aren't so clear!
Well, I'm so glad I finally picked up this one. It was great: excellent world-building, wonderful heroine and a very interesting hint of romance. A B+.

Yelena is about to be executed. The former kingdom of Ixia, where she lives, became a military dictatorship a few years earlier, and one of the main changes instituted by the ruler, Commander Ambrose, is a legal system called the Code of Behaviour. Under these new rules, the punishment for taking a life is losing your own... no excuses. It doesn't matter if you killed in self defense, or even by accident. You killed someone, you are executed. It's that simple.

That's what happened to Yelena. She was living in an orphanage run by the governor of one of Ixia's districts, General Brazell, and she killed the man's son. From the beginning we know this was self-defense, but we only gradually get the details, so I won't reveal them here. Suffice it to say that Yelena was justified in what she did. But she did kill him, and she did admit that she killed him, and so her punishment is clear. She'll be killed herself.

At the eleventh hour, however, Yelena gets an unexpected reprieve. Commander Ambrose's food taster has died, and the Code of Behaviour dictates that the next person in line for execution be offered the job. And that's Yelena.

She's taken to Valek, the Commander's right hand man, and though she knows this is probably just postponing her inevitable death for a little while, she accepts. Maybe she can even get lucky and find a chance to escape? But those small hopes are soon dashed, when Valek reveals he's just fed her a lethal, slow-acting poison, and that unless she shows up at his office every morning for her antidote, she'll die.

And so Yelena begins her training and then her work as food taster. But her new life in the castle isn't simple. General Brazell still wants her dead, Code of Behaviour or no Code of Behaviour, powerful magicians from Sitia (south of Ixia, where everyone with magic powers took refuge after magic was outlawed and became punishable with death) are after her, a plot to depose Commander Ambrose seems to be brewing, and last, but not least, her initially very wary relationship with Valek is developing into something more.

I should start my review by saying this is not romance. As I mentioned above, there is a bit of it, but it's more some nice tension and a promising beginning than anything else. So if you were considering reading it for the romance, you might want to think again. The reason why you should read it is because Yelena is a wonderful character, and the world in which she lives is just as good.

Yelena is such a great character because she rings true. Her reactions, her actions, her feelings, they all feel like what a real person would be thinking and feeling and doing. She's not perfect: she makes mistakes, trusts some wrong people, makes some wrong choices, but they are all things I could actually see a person doing, especially someone not used to intrigue and deception who's suddenly thrust into a situation like the one Yelena is living in. Even with her emerging magical powers and the things her childhood training as an acrobat allows her to do, Yelena is always completely human. She's no kick-ass robot; when she's in dangerous situations, she can handle herself, but is no fighting machine.

The characters surrounding Yelena are just as interesting and well drawn as she is. Valek and Commander Ambrose are probably the most fascinating. They are complex and impossible to categorize easily, and though we see everything from Yelena's point of view only, we get some very illuminating insights into who they are and why they act the ways they do.

The world in which these people live was one of the things I liked best about the book. Snyder writes about Ixia in such away that we quickly get a feel for it and how it works. There are many areas about which I'd love to know more (like, what kind of support does the military have among the people? Are they happy about things as they are? Or would they like their monarchy back?), but everything feels consistent.

I also liked the way Snyder wasn't heavy-handed in her portrayal of Ixian politics, never demonizing or idealizing either the old monarchy or the new military rulers. Rather, she showed us both had their good and bad points. For the current system, for instance, we see that the Code of Behaviour is obviously much too rigid, not even trying to contemplate the many exceptions possible, which means it will often be tragically unfair. But at least you can always know what the exact consequences of your actions will be, unlike with the monarchy, who pretty much administered justice as they saw fit. Or the dehumanizing system of everyone having to wear uniforms and having to work at an assigned job, in an assigned place. Again, much too rigid, but at least women can now choose to work in jobs which were previously banned to them.

Among the multitude of things going on, from Yelena's run-ins with the magicians, the plotting, and so on, I think my favourite was what we saw of her job as food taster. I really never dreamed it could be so complicated. If I ever thought of it (which I probably haven't, other than after reading the news article a couple of months ago about how this security guy of the President's thinks he needs to hire a food taster. Paranoid idiot.), I guess I'd imagined something more straightforward. You eat, then if if you're still alive, the food's ok and the bigwigs can eat it. Obviously, this is silly, but even some reflection wouldn't have predicted just how complex and intriguing it all can be.

If there's anything to criticise here, it would be the ending. Not really because it's got a very obvious "to be continued..." feel to it (I already knew about that, and in this case, forwarned is forearmed), but because it felt a little bit too rushed and hurried, compared to the pace of the rest of the novel.

The sequel, Magic Study is out already, and the couple of reviews I've seen have been great. I've been eyeing it at fictionwise, where it's being offered with a 20% micropay rebate, which would leave it at just under $12. Maybe I'll splurge :-)


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