Review of POISON STUDY by MARIA V. SNYDER
(first in the STUDY trilogy)
Yelena murdered her benefactor in self-defense (not that anyone saw it that way or would believe her) and now faces execution. Then spymaster Valek offers her a second chance: become the Commander’s food taster. Though she risks ingesting poison with every meal, Yelena recognizes the difference between certain vs. possible death and, of course, accepts Valek’s offer.
Valek slips Yelena a poison called Butterfly’s Dust on her first day. If she reports to him each morning, he’ll give her a daily antidote to stave off a slow and painful death. If she runs away, she’ll die within the day. Now Yelena juggles learning about a wide array of poisons, figuring out who she can trust and how to ally herself, and, perhaps most problematic, hiding her possible magical abilities in a land where such talents equal a death sentence.
Above all, this is a story of survival. Yelena doesn’t have an immediate goal at the start of the book beyond living. A goal that proves especially difficult in her circumstances, but remains her primary drive from beginning to end. At the start surviving means paying close attention to Valek’s poison training in the hopes of detecting something without ingesting enough that it will kill her. Then she encounters enemies who want revenge for the man she killed and she must learn some beyond basic self-defense. As if that weren’t enough, a magician approaches her and reveals that Yelena has “untamed” magic. Magicians are forbidden in Yelena’s land and if she’s discovered her death will be ordered...again. However, if she doesn’t master her magic, the magician warns they will have no choice but to kill her before her magic gets too out of her control. So Yelena faces attacks on her simple survival goal from all sides. This also makes it extra interesting to read on in the series and see what Yelena will start wanting for herself once survival becomes less of a challenge.
This book was a re-read for me and I found myself surprised on the second reading by the strength of the feminist subtext. I primarily recalled this trilogy as a compelling, fun read with a lot of flaws. However, on the second read I barely noticed said flaws and found myself instead impressed by strengths I think I underestimated on the first read. Aside from an admirable heroine and other progressive characters and messages, these strengths also included the big cast of characters, a common theme among my favorite books. I especially like that Yelena evolves from a lone wolf character in a place of desperation at the start of the novel to someone surrounded by people who support her and lent extra power by forming strong bonds with the right people.
My one consistent complaint with Snyder’s work is that the writing isn’t nearly as strong as the plot. And I believe it’s this weakness in very basic points of the writing that lead me to undervalue the book as a whole. Snyder often connects two distinctly separate sentences with only a comma where there should be a period or at least semi-colon. I also always find multiple dangling participles in her work as well as clauses that don’t apply to their intended subject. It occasionally makes the story a little harder to follow when I’m distracted by basic grammar mistakes or even find myself re-reading sentences to ensure I understood the intended meaning.
I look forward to re-reading the other two books in this trilogy and was also reminded that Snyder has new work out I have yet to read. Snyder’s another writer who can be a little formulaic, but I like her formula so I’m not complaining.