Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Poison Study

by Maria V. Snyder


Faced with execution, Yelena Zaltana is given one last chance at life. The catch is, becoming the Commander of Ixia's food taster isn't a healthy career choice with a generous pension plan. In order to identify poisons she must learn what they taste like. The training can be deadly, and the chances of reaching retirement age remote.

Yelena has a lot to contend with besides food. Those who want her to die for her original crime are still out for revenge. A Southern sorceress is hunting her. And her emerging magical powers, if discovered, will earn her a second death sentence. She doesn't know who she can trust, and life in the palace is a spider's web of intrigue and deceit. She's even afraid that Valek, her mentor for the role of poison-taster, could turn on her.

One thing marking out Poison Study as different from the sea of generic look-alike fantasy is the Commander's regime. Everything in Ixia is ordered according to the Code of Behaviour, rigid rules that govern many aspects of life. Everyone has a job and a uniform, and punishments for misdemeanours are always the same. The government overthrew a corrupt and decadent monarchy, following the excesses of that period with a distinct austerity. It's almost like a fantasy set in Communist Russia, except people carry swords instead of guns, and there are no gulags.

However the themes are far from a complete departure from other fantasy. It's reminiscent of Robin Hobb's Assassin series, echoing the themes of forbidden magic, corrupt royals and an apprenticeship in the assassin's arts. Maria V. Snyder's story has a softer edge, with more emphasis on romance, partly because Yelena makes friends easily. She begins as a scrawny, filthy prisoner, but soon transforms herself as she moves to a position of more strength. In many ways she's a rounded character, determined without being butch and not unnecessarily obtuse as she tries to solve the mysteries before her. The author's skill in creating believable characters make this the kind of tale you can get lost in for hours at a stretch.

This is one of those fantasy worlds that's so close to our own that it imports a great deal from the real world, such as much of Earth's flora and fauna. Usually this doesn't matter, because it means the author isn't re-inventing the wheel and is free to concentrate on the action. But sometimes Snyder goes too far. Yelena will be tucked away in the Ixian palace when suddenly someone mentions a Japanese word, or someone will be discussing a dessert when the word Theobroma comes up, so similar to theobromine, the ingredient that makes chocolate poisonous to dogs. Things like this can shatter the illusion of the narrative for a while.

However these are minor points which amount to no more than a few words out of place, barely noticeable. On the whole this is a sweet romance blended with just the right amount of politics and adventure. Intense and heady.

Book Details

Year: 2005

Categories: Books

    Female Protagonist  

If you like this, try:

The Usurper    

The Usurper's Crown by Sarah Zettel
The second novel in the Isavalta series is a prequel which takes the daughter of a fishing family into a realm of magic, treachery and scheming royals.

Throne of Glass cover    

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
A beautiful assassin must secure her freedom by winning a contest against other thieves and killers. But a year as a slave has left her weakened and out of practice.

Glass Houses cover    

Glass Houses by Rachel Caine
Claire Danvers is worried about missing class. But in a town full of vampires she has more to fear than bad grades and parental disapproval.

4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson