By KATIE STOCKDALE
Poison Study starts with Yelena, a prisoner in the Commander’s dungeons, with a choice to make: she can continue with her execution or she can become the Commander’s food taster. While this is a common theme through fantasy books, Yelena is somewhat different. Aware of her guilt, Yelena finds relief when the time of her execution comes around.
Nevertheless, Yelena takes the chance to live, and Maria Snyder’s new fantasy story begins to unfold. Central to the plot are, of course, poisons. Yelena quickly learns how to recognize poisons and to ensure that food is clear, all while debating escaping. But she really can’t because she’s been poisoned by the Commander’s second, Valek, as a form of security to keep the food taster in line. Yelena’s poison is called Butterfly’s Dust, and it is slow acting, if she doesn’t get the antidote within two days, she’ll die.
So Yelena stays, receives her daily antidote form Valek, learns about poisons and begins, despite herself, to make friends. But Yelena’s not completely safe within the castle. Her original crime had been murder, of a general’s son no less. And both the general and his men are in the castle.
It is from this conflict that the underlying plot grows. Espionage is slowly uncovered, as well as external and internal threats. A banned southern magician is hanging around, and there is magic coming from inside the castle as well– a dangerous situation as magic has been declared illegal. Yelena doesn’t know who to trust as her life grows more dangerous every day, with threats on all sides, and maybe even from herself.
An important part of the story happens before the novel begins and Snyder uses flashbacks to great effect to explain the back story. At first these are disjointed and small, maybe a few lines at most, but as the story progresses they become longer and longer until the reader can uncover Yelena’s life and what has led her to the castle.
Snyder also has a complex magic system in place. It’s reminiscent of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time in that the magic blankets the world and those with the gift of pulling magic can shape it to do different things. But it isn’t without its dangers; if a magician pulls too much magic it can cause a ripple in the magic blanket, affecting other magicians abilities to draw from the source. In rare cases, untrained magicians have caused flameouts, in which they pull too much magic, fail to control it, and rip a hole in the blanket, exposing an entire area to no magic.
With this complex system in place, Snyder sets up a bigger story, which, in true fantasy fashion, is sprawling. There are three trilogies, the rest of the Study trilogy, the Glass trilogy, and the Soulfinder trilogy. The last book in the Soulfinder trilogy has yet to come out, although it’s rumored to be out in 2017.
Thanks to immersive writing, engaging characters and a unique plot, it’s no surprise that Snyder’s book has come this far. Her story is funny but it also matters. It raises the big questions about our actions and their consequences. In a world where there is no black and white, when defending yourself can be a crime, Yelena has to struggle with her past choices. She sees herself as a killing monster, despite the fact that she acted to save herself.
She’s haunted by the ghost of the person she killed, despite the fact that he, in so many ways, deserved it. He was not a good person and Yelena knows this keenly, yet she still allows his death to torment her, raising the question: can you justify murder? And if you can, how can you reconcile yourself to having killed another person? This is what Yelena struggles with, and in the end, she has to learn to accept it herself.
There’s only one problem with the novel: Yelena eventually falls for Valek, the Commander’s second and her de facto boss. There’s a decade plus age difference between them, but that isn’t really the bad part. It’s that when Valek was first introduced, it was in a father-figure role, until it very suddenly stopped being that role. Yelena’s initial change is so abrupt it’s shocking, and as their relationship changes it becomes nausea-inducing.
The rest of the story outweighs this unfortunate occurrence, and is high-paced, full of twists until the end. This new world has a lot to offer. As for Yelena, poison is only the beginning.
Katie Stockdale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org