Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I finished this book on Friday, and I took all weekend to decide what I wanted to say in my review. Let me start by saying that Poison Study is written in a very elemental fashion. If you are a reader who likes flowery, descriptive writing, this might throw you for a loop initially. The story is told inelaborately, and there is no hesitation in describing the ugliness of Yelena's situation. When I met Yelena, she was taken out of her prison cell, where she had languished for the better part of a year, and was prepared to meet the executioner. I can't say I've read too many books that started this way. I was hooked right then and there. Instead of seeing Yelena get executed, she is taken to the office of the man who will cause a profound change in her life, Valek. Yelena was offered the opportunity to escape a quick execution. She could undertake the training as a food taster, which was not without risk, and if she survived, she would spend her life risking death on a regular basis. Typically the life of a food taster is very short. But, it's a lot longer than instant death. Yelena thought things through and decided she'd rather take her chances as a food taster.
From the beginning, I was interested in Yelena's story. She was a young woman who had ended up in a very dire situation (not all of her making), but was willing to own up to the life she'd taken. She never made excuses for her actions, although the reasons were valid. With the murder she committed, she felt as though her soul had been lost. And yet, some part of her refused to give up.
This book brings to mind the aphorism that "Justice is Blind." More and more I wonder if justice really should be blind. Those who enforce the law make their verdicts on cases based on the evidence presented. Yet, they don't always consider the underlying reasons why a person commits a crime. In the eyes of an omniscient diety, this makes perfect sense, because that Supreme Being sees all things. But, humans don't have that all-seeing perception. Is it fair for a woman to be sentenced to death for trying to protect herself and her loved ones, for killing a man who brutally tortured and raped her? According to the strict laws of Ixia, murder outside of war is considered a capital offene. From the moment that Yelena took the life of the son of General Brazell, her life was forfeit.
I believe in second chances. I just do. I know that we all fall and fail, and while I think some crimes are extremely heinous, I cannot let go of my belief that everyone deserves the right to make amends. I was happy that Valek gave Yelena the opportunity to live. Yet, Yelena will face more trials with her second chance. And she is put in a position to save the Commander who she serves as food-taster, and to prevent Ixia from falling prey to a conspiracy that involves key members of the government.
Poison Study was a very readable, fascinating, enjoyable adventure. I loved seeing Yelena come into her own. It was clear that she'd always been a strong person, and her strength of character and will is what allowed herself to emerge from the fires that had potential to destroy her. Instead, she was honed by those fires and made stronger.
I'm not very good at political stuff. I have my own way of looking at things, and it makes my interpretation of political stances, parties, affiliations, and governmental structures very against type. I think it was interesting to see the inner workings of the system that the Commander had set up through Yelena's eyes. In many ways, going from a monarchy to what appeared to be a dictatorship was an improvement. However, there were many restrictions imposed on the people as a result of that same government. Opportunities were open that weren't before. The government was set up to encourage fairness and to discourage waste. The downside was, anytime you have people in a system, it's going to be flawed, because people are flawed. So this system was not perfect. Through Yelena's eyes, I was able to see this all playing out.
I started this review by saying that this book was written with a simple use of language. I found that this narrative style was a bit deceptive. You might think this story is basic on first glance, but that's far from the truth. There is a lot going on here. I liked that Ms. Snyder left it up to the reader to interpret the events through her own eyes. I like how she slowly reveals aspects of the characters until the fullest picture comes to mind. That was the best way to write about a character like Valek. When he comes on the scene, he doesn't seem that grand. He seems like a puppet in the political structure of Ixia. But, if I had continued to see him that way, I would have been missing out on a lot. You see, Valek is not the puppet. He's the puppetmaster. He is an extremely intelligent and cunning spymaster, a swordsman without equal, and a deadly assassin. He's so matter-of-fact and without flare, so you don't see him truly unless you look deeper. He holds his allegiance to Commander Ambrose very sacredly, but that doesn't mean he doesn't always agree with the rules that the Commander has instituted. That he cannot see justice done in his own way. Through Yelena's eyes, we see how the perception of Valek expands to show who and what he really is. I fell in love with him as Yelena did.
I'm a romantic at heart, and I will always be. I loved the burgeoning relationship between Yelena and Valek. How they slowly worked their way into each others' hearts, through proximity and the fact that they saw something in each other that resulted in an irresistible draw to each other. It's clear from the beginning, through the eyes of others around Yelena and Valek, and through Valek's actions, that he cherishes Yelena. It's a subtle but at the same time, pretty obvious thing. In my opinion, it took a lot of writing skill to convey this to the reader, and Ms. Snyder did an excellent job.
Poison Study was a grand adventure in the style of the classic adventure novels. The fight scenes are well-written, and the danger elements are exciting and involving. Being Yelena is a dangerous proposition, because Brazell is determined to see her dead for killing his son, and continually uses underhanded methods to do it. Also because she lives in dangerous times, and in an environment fraught with intrigue. I liked that Valek saved Yelena several times, because it showed the intensity of his regard for her, but I also liked that many other times, Yelena was able to save herself through her intelligence, quick-thinking, and through her developing skills at self-defense. Yelena views herself as a small person in the scheme of things, but she had an important role in preventing a very ugly conspiracy from coming to fruition. She effects change by doing what she feels is right, and because of that, she gains the respect of those who had previously viewed her as a cold-blooded murderess. Her actions don't occur in a vacuum, and they often result in helping/protecting others in various ways.
The fantastic elements are subtle but integral. I liked how Yelena's magic was instrinsic to her, a part of her that was dormant, emerging when she needs it. I loved seeing her become a capable and deadly fighter. She hates the idea of killing, but killing is necessary in the dangerous world she lives in. She had to come to realize this, or she couldn't love Valek, a man who kills for a living, and must do it without letting remorse weigh him down.
Poison Study was a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Like many unexpected favorites, it snuck in there on me. But when I finished this book, I had a big smile on my face.
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