Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
(Luna, $19.95, PG) ISBN 0-373-80230-7
****
Sometimes not paying close enough attention to a blurb can pay off.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t borrow a fantasy from the library, but I jumped to the conclusion from the illustration on the jacket cover that Poison Study was an historical novel likely set during the Renaissance, barely glanced at the first couple of sentences of the blurb, and added it to the stack in my arms. Well, you know the old adage: you can’t judge a book by its cover. As I figured out very early in the book, Poison Study is fantasy fiction – the romance thread takes a while to get going – but even so I thoroughly enjoyed it and am recommending it to other readers.

The monarchy of Ixia has been overthrown, and the current ruler is Commander Ambrose. Ixia is divided into districts, each governed by a General. The strict Code of Behavior sets out the governing rules, and there are no excuses for non-compliance. “Live by the Code or face the consequences.” Punishment is harsh and certain. Each infraction has a penalty.

Yelena, the narrator, killed Reyad, General Brazell’s only son. Yelena had been raised in the General’s orphanage and had regarded him as a father but learned there was a dark side to the pair. The punishment for murder is death; no mitigating factors are taken into consideration. Yelena was thrown into a bleak dungeon and is awaiting execution.

Believing she is being taken to be hanged, she is instead brought to Valek, the Commander’s personal security chief. The Commander’s last food taster has died (presumably in the line of duty). The Code says that the next person sentenced to die is to be offered the position as taster. It’s a lifetime appointment because failure means death.

Yelena accepts the position rather than be executed, but her training as taster is nearly as risky. She must taste poisons in order to be able to identify them in the Commander’s food. But even if she survives her training, she might not serve long as taster because General Brazell is determined that she dies for killing his son.

Poison Study begins quickly – Yelena learns she is to be spared from execution and meets Valek in the first few pages. From that point the plot proceeds in two directions: first, into Yelena’s experiences as she assumes the perilous position as food taster and second, into her past and the reasons behind her killing General Brazell’s son. As might be expected, the Commander needs a food taster because the political situation in Ixia is anything but stable. The book moves evenly on all threads with smooth transitions between the various subplots.

Character development is of lesser importance than plot. As the first-person narrator, Yelena is a fully dimensional character, and Valek gradually assumes more depth over the course of the story, but few of the other characters are much more than one-dimensional. Ixia is a fictional world where modern science is unknown and magic is an active force. My guess at a Renaissance setting wasn’t all that far off.

It’s Yelena who carries the book. I quickly came to care what happened to her, why she’d ended up in such a precarious situation, how she’d survive, whether she could escape Brazell’s machinations. I was so caught up in the story that I read it with few interruptions and – always a good sign – was left wanting more when it ended.

Poison Study is the debut book by author Maria V. Snyder. A sequel, Magic Study, is to be published in 2006. Its appealing heroine and well-paced plot make this a book that even non-fantasy readers may want to check out.

--Lesley Dunlap


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