Depending on what kind of a reader you are, you may enjoy being challenged by every new book or you may prefer comfort reads, books where you essentially know what you’re going to get. Or you’re a mix of both or something in between. I lean more towards new and challenging reads but, boy, do I love a nice comfort read when I’m stressed. This book was not good literature in any way, it wasn’t good fantasy either, but it told a fun story that was easy to follow, with exciting scenes, a nice romance, and a fast moving plot. And sometimes, that’s exactly the right kind of book.
by Maria V. Snyder
Published: Mira Books, 2005
eBook: 431 pages
Series: Poison Study #1
My rating: 4/10
Opening line: Locked in darkness that surrounded me like a coffin, I had nothing to distract me from my memories.
About to be executed for murder, Yelena is offered an extraordinary reprieve. She’ll eat the best meals, have rooms in the palace– and risk assassination by anyone trying to kill the Commander of Ixia.And so Yelena chooses to become a food taster. But the chief of security, leaving nothing to chance, deliberately feeds her Butterfly’s Dust and only by appearing for her daily antidote will she delay an agonizing death from the poison. As Yelena tries to escape her new dilemma, disasters keep mounting. Rebels plot to seize Ixia and Yelena develops magical powers she can’t control. Her life is threatened again and choices must be made. But this time the outcomes aren’t so clear…
Yelena is taken from the dungeon where she has spent the last year to finally be executed for the murder she’s committed. But destiny offers her another chance to live, at least for a while. The Commander’s former food taster has died recently and a replacement is needed. The Rules (this mysterious document/code of conduct comes up many times, don’t expect it to be explained or make sense or anything, just roll with it) state that the next in line for the gallows should be offered the job. And, as she is kind of attached to life, Yelena accepts. After a trial run where her new superior – and the commander’s confidant – Valek tests her ability to even discover whether food is poisoned, Yelena turns out to be perfect for the job. And thus starts her career as food taster and this story kicks off.
Let me say, before I get into anything else, that I had a lot of fun reading this and I would actually recommend it. But I’d recommend it with caveats, or for when you’re in the same mood I was in, or when you’re just into this kind of book. Because if you’re a reader of SFF for the same reasons I am – namely discovering the world through a science-fictional lens, reading about wild ideas, wondrous magic, epic battles, fantastical cultures, futuristic visions, … – then this is not the right book.
But if you want a quick, fun adventure where magic appears when convenient, where things are simple and straight forward, and where you know more or less what’s going to happen, then pick this up. The best analogy I can make is a rom com. They’re all essentially the same but still different enough to have a favorite and to keep you entertained. So, now that I’ve hopefully got across that I had fun reading this, my critical brain nonetheless needs to tell you why it just isn’t a good book.
Everything is super simplistic and shallow.
Seriously, pick your poison (haha), it has no depth. The characters are mostly blank with one or two personality traits and no agency at all. They exist merely to further Yelena’s story, they don’t have lives or hopes or dreams outside of being a sidekick to Yelena.
Yelena is, naturally, perfect. She is the kind of heroine I loathe! She’s good at everything, either right from the start or after very little training. Her friends teach her self-defense and fighting with a staff and she masters this art after only a few weeks because… well, the plot demands that she’s really good at fighting at that point. The fact that her tastebuds are also amazing and can immediately (!) detect the slightest differences in certain foods is far from believable, especially in someone who has spent the last months in a dungeon, being fed tasteless slop. But my motto while reading this was: just roll with it!
The world buliding is just as weak and sloppy. There used to be a king, but he was overthrown by the Commander and now the kingdom is divided into Military Districts, led by Generals. They abide by super strict rules (that Code thingy I mentioned above) that allow no lenience whatsoever. Killed someone in self-defense? You gotta die. Killed someone to save a baby’s life? Too bad, you’re still going to be hanged. None of this is ever explained, there’s not even an attempt at creating a consistent believable world here. Rules, cultural idiosynchrasies, celebrations, etc. come up when the plot demands it and disappear as easily. That’s why this is, objectively, not a good book. But who cares?
There’s also magic in this universe and – can you guess it – our heroine secretly has magical powers. This isn’t a spoiler as anyone will guess after the third chapter when she accidentally uses magic. Now I am perfectly happy with the lack of a magic system, because magic should be wild and uncontrollable, otherwise it would just be science that we don’t understand (yet). But Snyder does put some rules on her magic, although they, like everything else in this book, feel like she came up with them spontaneously and they don’t have any impact whatsoever on the plot or characters or anything. New rules appear as soon as it’s convenient, without ever having been mentioned before.
That’s what makes this book feel so much like an early draft. Ideas pop up whenever they probably popped up in the author’s head. Now to make a book better, you should try and foreshadow a little or at least leave tiny hints or mentions of things that will be important to the plot later. Don’t let your readers believe they are in a world with only rule X and then, in the last quarter of the book sudeenly pretend that rule Y has always existed.
As for the plot, I’m not really sure what the point is and why the book is called Poison Study, but it was exciting enough. Yelena’s new chance to live gets the whole thing rolling, but we soon learn that she has a Dark Past (TM) which is also the reason she’s killed a man and was in the dungeons in the first place. Nothing about her past was particularly surprising, except for the one time where she explicitly contradicts herself – saying in an early chapter that a certain thing never happened and then much later in the book explaining how that very thing not just happened but was the catalyst for the murder… That’s just super lazy writing/editing!
But whatever, her new job is to taste the Commander’s food, try and not find her superior/assassin/poison master Valek so damn attractive, make friends with a few people, and discover a whole conspiracy. There are training montages, bullies to fight, spies to discover, friendship, betrayal, a fire festival, acrobatics, surprisingly little poison tasting, sneaking around the castle, and some battles.
On the one hand, everything in this book is just too easy and it felt like the author didn’t know how to make certain things feel important. Yelena’s past, for example, follows her everywhere. She clearly has some trauma (as is only understandable) but only about her past. She strangely mourns a stranger’s death but never so much as mentions the death of a character who was a friend. Because the characters are all so shallow, I guess the author forgot to have her heroine be sad about one of them passing. There is also this whole enmity going on between Yelena and another character that is simply dropped somwhere around the middle of the book. Said character isn’t even mentioned after that although they came across as rather important at first. It’s all very haphazard and serves one purpose only: to tell the story of an author-insert protagonist who is beyond perfect and finally realizes just how amazing she really is. She finds an attractive man who (of course) is all aflame for her, she makes friends who would immediately die for her, and she saves the country just by being the only (!) person clever enough to figure out things that will be clear to the reader from chapter 3 onwards.
So to reiterate: Despite this book actually being a literary trainwreck, I had fun reading it! Who cares that the language changes from old-timey to strangely modern within the same sentence? Who cares how simple and ridiculous everything is. This is a feel-good book where you know everything will end well, things will turn out alright for the protagonists and the only characters who find a bad end you never really cared for in the first place because they were just cardboard cutouts. Sitting down for a few hours having mindless fun can be exactly right, especially during stressful times. Reading is supposed to be fun and sometimes, we need this pure escapism. Maria Snyder gave me that with this book, and although I have no desire whatsoever to find out how Yelena’s story continues, I will keep this series in the back of my mind for a time when I’m stressed out and don’t want to think but just want to go on a silly adventure with a perfect heroine.
MY RATING: 4 – Pretty bad!