Thursday, March 16, 2023

Maria V. Snyder - Poison Study

Choose: A quick death… Or slow poison...
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...

Comment: This book was well hyped a few years ago but since it's labeled YA I never felt very interested. However, someone whose opinion I trust has mentioned certain aspects about it which convinced me the YA elements were not as glaring and that I might like it and I got it later on. I'm very happy to say this person knows me well and that is exactly what I thought about it!

In this story we meet  Yelena, a young woman accused and convicted of murder, which is a crime punished by death in the fantasy world created by the author. However, there's a possible solution, the Code of Rules allows the next prisoner to be executed to be offered the chance for salvation and Yelene is next. She is asked to be the poison taster for the Commander and if she refuses, she will be executed as planed. Clearly heroine Yelena isn't one to miss an opportunity and she accepts, and starts to be trained by the ruthless but charismatic Valek. At the same time, Yelena can't help but feel her life is in danger still, for the man she killed was the son of the "benefactor" general in whose district she lived as an orphan. Now that man wants revenge but can it be he might want to use Yelena as motive for even higher plans?

This is the first book of what was originally a trilogy and that later became a series. I say this because the first three full length stories were written between 2005 and 2008 and the other later three between 2015 and 2017. I have not investigated enough why but it feels as if the second half of the series might have been thought of later as well (as opposed, perhaps, to an original plan for six books in 2005 when the first one was published?).

Anyway, I had the fear this would be just one more YA story with an immature and "special" heroine dividing her goals into lust and megalomaniac odds of doing something groundbreaking in the world. Thankfully, my own sense of the whole thing was quickly put to rest when we are told the heroine is actually 19 and as I kept reading, I could see her focus wasn't on romance but on surviving and in finding a way to feel worthy and discover more about her origins and why the man who everyone thinks as a good person by taking care of orphans is actually quite a villain.

The idea for this story - and the subsequent ones I imagine - is quite engaging and I was engrossed by how this was developed. Yelena becomes a poison taster for someone who caused a revolution, brought down the monarchy which was, for all purposes, unfair and corrupt, and now installed a sort of dictatorship but where the Commander often makes fair and realistic decisions. I think this was an interesting element, for we assume any dictatorship can only be negative by the meaning of the work alone, but the way this happens, despite the system not being perfect as we learn, still helps to maintain order.

The region is divided into north (where the Commander rules 8 districts) and the south, where other clans still live. One of the interesting differences is that there's magic in this world and those in north consider it bad and exploitative and why the previous king had so much power. I don't think anyone would find it  such a surprise to know Yelena, as an orphan, has mysterious origins and she is clearly of a magical family line! This has certainly allowed for interesting developments in the story to happen, some more important than others.

Yelena is a good heroine, we see things from her POV and she isn't whiny or selfish despite her past experiences, but she isn't so hard of feeling that she wouldn't accept kindness of others. Of course much of the plot helps us to create this idea of her but so does the notion she is genuinely a likable person. I can only assume we will see other sides of her in the next books, especially considering how this one ends and the fact she will certainly explore her magical side.

There are some hints of romance until closer to the end, obviously regarding Valek, and this being fantasy and specifically aimed at certain plot scenes, I didn't find it weird they are more or less boss/employee. In fact, their roles start to blend a little as the story progresses but he does remain a little mysterious as any romantic interest must be like, at least until the drama of the plot reaches it's peak. We do learn some interesting tidbits about him and about the world building in general which make this a very well planned story after all.

I might read the second book although I don't own it yet. It's really not a priority but one day I might want to see how this would continue....
Grade: 8/10

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