Poison Study is the first book in the Study trilogy by Maria V. Snyder and is followed by Magic Study and Fire Study, respectively. The first two books in this series have been released both as fantasy and young adult titles.
When Yelena is escorted from prison by a couple of guards, she knows she is most likely about to be executed for murdering General Brazell’s son. The law is very strict that anyone who takes a life during peacetime will be hanged under any circumstances, including an unfortunate accident or killing in self-defense. After spending nearly a year imprisoned, Yelena has been expecting this moment.
Instead, Yelena learns that the same strict law that enforces the death penalty so harshly has one exception: once the position of food taster for the Commander is vacant, it is offered to the next prisoner facing execution. Fortunately for Yelena, this is the case and she is given the choice of dying immediately or delaying her death while working in a profession likely to cause it. Once she is assured this is not a cruel joke by Valek, the chief of security, Yelena jumps on the chance even though she wonders what makes them so sure a convicted felon will not escape at the first opportunity.
As soon as she accepts, Valek gets drinks for both of them to toast Yelena. Once Yelena has drunk from her cup, he teaches her to identify a poison called Butterfly’s Dust by showing her the difference between his drink and hers. If Yelena wants to avoid a slow and painful death, she must take the antidote every day, making leaving the premises futile – but as she endures close calls with General Brazell’s men and suspects a possible conspiracy, poison may be the least of her concerns.
Poison Study was engrossing from the beginning and remained fast-paced throughout with plenty of cliff-hanger chapter endings, although the early parts of the novel were stronger than the end. There was some info-dumping about how the world worked yet it was kept in short blocks and interspersed with so much suspense about what would happen next that it was barely noticeable. It was a fairly succinct novel that kept moving, but there was attention to detail without getting bogged down by too much information. In particular, the parts concerning Yelena’s lessons in food tasting methods made it seem well thought out since they included ways to make it difficult for potential poisoners to figure out how to trick the taster.
The strength of this novel was that it was an exciting read. The characters did not have a lot of depth, including the main protagonist. The main villain did seem too evil and some other characters seemed too dedicated to goodness. The commander himself was the most fascinating and I would have liked to have read more about him. He overthrew the king and created his own society with very black and white rules – everyone must wear a uniform showing their rank, everyone who kills someone must die no matter what the reason, and the practice of any magic is forbidden. Yet there is a sense that this new order even with its weaknesses is preferable to the old. The more that is discovered about the commander, the more he shines as the most intriguing single character in the novel.
Even though the main protagonist and first person narrator of the story is immediately revealed to have killed a man, Yelena is a perfectly likable character. She makes no excuses for her actions, but there is a flashback on the very first page that gives the impression that she is not a bad person and that there is much more to this story than she is telling anyone, including us as readers. Also, even though she is not executed, she’s not in the clear, either – if she is poisoned, her death will most likely be far more agonizing than her hanging would have been. As the novel progresses, we learn more about her past and her motivations and my main complaint with Yelena comes to the forefront. Although Yelena is amiable, she does seem to have the flaw of being far too perfect – she’s intelligent and a fast learner when it comes to both attaining knowledge and fighting. (There’s much more but to avoid spoilers I’m not going to list the rest of what I scribbled down in my outline notes.) This didn’t bother me greatly since the novel was a lot of fun to read and she did have a lot of personal struggles, but it was a little irritating that she seemed to be able to do pretty much anything.
Poison Study is an engaging read with a different perspective as seen through the eyes of a food taster for an important official. It makes one want to keep reading until the end, but it does suffer from some flat characterization and the main character’s tendency toward mastering any and every challenge put before her. However, this wasn’t a huge deal as it was a very enjoyable, well-paced book anyway.
My Rating: 7.5/10
Where I got my reading copy: It was a Christmas gift from books on my wish list.