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Maria V. Snyder – Poison Study

May 23, 2009
Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

I’m loath to break in this blog with a negative review, but apparently not loath enough.

Yelena, the heroine of Snyder’s Poison Study (and its sequels), is facing execution for killing the son of a powerful general when she is offered a reprieve: she will be permitted to live if she agrees to serve as the poison taster for the enigmatic Commander Ambrose, who rules the generic medieval fantasy realm of Ixia.  Yelena’s new job, predictably enough, draws her into political and magical intrigue that only she can resolve.

The good guys are pure, the bad guys are pure evil, and the result is thoroughly uninteresting.  Yelena is a failed attempt at characterization-by-suffering.  It’s probably not spoiling anything to note that there is never an instant that the reader does not know that the crime for which she was sentenced to die could not have been committed in cold blood, and an attempt to turn this information into a big reveal falls utterly flat.  And for all that Yelena is put through, her strengths come too easily: after some study, she happens to excel at poison-tasting, forbidden magic, and a particular physical skill that comes in handy for combat.  Would I have accepted two out of the three as more believable?  We’ll never know.

The conspiracy Yelena discovers is the most promising part of the book, but its perpetrators’ wooden villainy unravels it more effectively than she does.  By the time the book’s big baddie was calling Yelena a “rat-spawned daughter of a demon . . . an incarnation of hell” in their final confrontation, I was snickering.

That said, I wouldn’t rule out reading future work by Snyder.  Poison Study is a first novel, and it shows.  But Snyder clearly spends a lot of thought on her worldbuilding and pacing, and if her characterization and tone even out in the future, I’d gladly check back.

Finally, I’d like to point out that Yelena is repeatedly described as having darker or bronzer skin than the characters around her.  Based upon the cover image, I’d guess this means that Ixia’s inhabitants are descended from Wednesday Addams.

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