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Book Review: Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

* Genre: High Fantasy, Coming-Of-Age Fantasy, Romance
* ISBN: 0778324338
* ISBN-13: 9780778324331
* Format: Paperback, 416pp
* Publisher: Mira
* Pub. Date: March 2007

I�ve always wondered who in their right minds would want to be the king�s food taster. After all, no matter how good the perks (rich food, cushy lifestyle) every meal could be your last. No food is that good nor is any king or general worth that much loyalty. Fight and die, sure, at least I have a chance at winning. But take the risk of eating poison, no way.

In this 2006 Compton Crook Award Winner, Poison Study, Maria V. Snyder (website; myspace) gives a plausible answer to this question. She even weaves an entire tale around a food taster�s life. Nineteen-year-old Yelena has been sentenced to death for the murder. She is given a choice, either serve as the Commander�s food taster, or swing from the gallows. She, of course, chooses to live. What she doesn�t know is that this means a life of captivity, fear of constant death, and involvement in political intrigue. It only gets worse when the reader discovers that Yelena is also being pursued by the father of the man she killed, a powerful General and ruler of one of the military districts that make up the military dictatorship of Ixia.

That�s right. I wrote �military dictatorship�. Snyder has done something I think is quite marvelous. Rather than use a standard setting for her fantasy tale, she chooses to place her characters in a country ruled by a military dictatorship. The Commander is the supreme ruler, but he, unlike other generals who have come to power, lives a spartan lifestyle, provides work and education for all people no matter their gender, and judges disputes fairly. Snyder has been innovative in choosing to have the political backdrop be different-yet-the-same for her fantasy tale. It is a medieval setting with a Napoleonic twist. Although the particulars of the setting are different, the overall tone of it is the same as any other high fantasy tale.

The plot is fairly simple. Yelena is moves through the story gaining and losing friends, discovering or gaining new abilities (she becomes an expert in poison and a good fighter), and ultimately pursues vindication for the murder she committed and freedom from the constrained life of the food taster. The story builds and builds till a climax is reached, finally pitting the heroine and her friends against all the evil arrayed against her. Snyder�s pacing and plot flow are very pleasant to read. It moves up and a down in with delicacy and action, with introspection and physical activity at just the right moments. Several subplots move within the tale as well. There is one apparent plot hole in two places in the novel, coming in the early chapters and related to the effect of poisons, but it comes to be answered in the way you might expect at the conclusion. So if you come across what appears to be a plot hole, wait, because all is answered in time.

The characters are what really make this work shine. There are two primary characters, Yelena and Valek. Valek is the Commander�s chief of staff, and the man who has put Yelena into the awful position is in, at least as concerns the food tasting. But he is also an assassin with compassion. He serves his commander ruthlessly but not blindly, and his empathy and care for Yelena give her a juxtaposition she is quizzical about for much of Poison Study. The story is told entirely through the heroine�s eyes, giving the reader the ability to empathize and agonize with her. Yelena becomes a character we care about, and would like to be. She is strong-willed and intelligent, but still a woman through and through. Snyder has created a well rounded character not too perfect but not grotesquely flawed either but simply a woman doing her best in difficult situations.

There are some issues I had with the book. First, Snyder does what many debut authors often do and overuses deus ex machina. By this I mean that whenever Yelena is in trouble, someone (usually Valek) shows up to save her. This took a little bit of swallowing because Valek, as the Commander�s chief of staff, would have been too busy to follow a lowly food taster around. This is kind of explained later in the book, but it wasn�t satisfactory enough for me. The other characters who pop up are a little more believable, but it still happens a few times too often.

Snyder also has Yelena become expert with the quarterstaff or �bow� as she calls it. But to my mind a bow is used for archery. I think what Snyder meant was a the Japanese name for a quarterstaff. Although as a writer of fantasy, Snyder has every right to call the weapon what she likes every time I read the word �bow� I would imagine archery, not a bludgeon, no matter the actions surrounding the word. This is a minor flaw, but one that bothered me.

Still, these are small things, and overall, Poison Study is both a strong debut and a well rounded novel. Interestingly, Poison Study includes a pretty good discussion guide in the edition I read. This would make the book good for reader�s circles and book groups. And since there is a significant (but not bodice-ripping) romance in the story, romance reader circles might want to turn to this novel as a way to broaden their reading, while still enjoying the element they most enjoy about their favorite genre.

I highly recommend that you read Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study. It�s a little different from the standard fantasy, but still fulfills all the expectations of the high fantasy connoisseur. You might also want to share it with your teenage children, as the study guide at the back would be a good starting point for family discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed this first novel in the Study series. It is creative without pushing the limits, has great action, a little romance, and some truly evil villains. All that one can ask for from a high/coming-of-age fantasy.

Yelena�s story continues in Magic Study.