When Yelena is saved from execution only to become the General’s new food taster, captive in this position by a poison due to kill her in two days if she does not regularly take the rare antidote, she acknowledges this only chance to gain control of her life. Getting in the way of her grand designs to escape the castle is a conspiracy to take control of her country away from the fair and practical General, and with a bounty on her head from the father of the boy she murdered, Yelena is required to navigate through the twists and turns of the plot with the help of her ‘supervisor’, the graceful, athletic, reserved assassin-spy Valek (whoop!) and several other friends – and unknown betrayers.
Poison Study is the kind of book that sings to my soul. It has a protagonist who experiences deep growth in the novel, from helpless doormat to defending kick-ass girl. Yelena’s murdered someone, this much we know to begin with. Why? How? What led to this extreme event? All of this is revealed in time. It begs the question: can someone who is clearly not innocent and challenges the gender roles often associated in high fantasy still be an admirable heroine? The answer is yes, by the way. Yelena quietly takes control of her own destiny through memorising the poison manual and learning self-defence, showing ingenious tactics and taking advantage of her own background.
Snyder’s writing is powerful and lyrical. Her lead characters demonstrate growth, her lesser characters are all three-dimensional, and she doesn’t shy away from unexpected deaths. I see similar themes in her other novels repeated here – orphaned protagonists, outlawed magic, military districts identified by uniform and rigorously governed. It’s similar in style to a dystopian setting, although there isn’t much dystopian about this novel.
And another thing – the romance. Personally I enjoy novels where the romance builds slowly. My favourite kind is where the couple actually hate each other at the beginning – or at least I hate the guy and do not want the girl to be with him. This may be because he is an asshole. The author will then work to make the guy a respectable partner for the lead character, showing over time the male’s growth, respect, affection and finally love. This has happened in several novels I have enjoyed: Fire, Unearthly, and Snyder’s own Touch of Power. This has failed in other ‘romances’ such as Twilight, and Hush, Hush. The romance in the latter two are abusive and the guys are jerks. The former three demonstrate an actual building relationship, which I really enjoy reading. Early in Poison Study I wrote a note saying ‘Valek is ALL KINDS OF A JERK.’ Two hundred pages later I was begging for Yalena and Valek to have sexytimes. That’s character growth by a master storyteller.
This is the kind of novel I adore. The heroine isn’t strong and brave and kick-ass and just gets more awesome. She is broken and frightened and defenceless, and learns to overcome that. The romance partner is a jerk who grows in my affections and quits being a jerkoff to genuinely care for the other. If you give up on this novel because Yelena is weak and Valek is a jerk, you are sorely missing out on the wonderful writing and development of these two characters.