Book Review: POISON STUDY, Maria V. Snyder

Boy, has it been a busy month for me. This is a belated review for the book I spent all of February trying to read. Unfortunately, it’s not a good one.

poison-studyPoison Study, Maria V. Snyder
Series: Study.
Pages: 361.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult.
Publisher: Griffin Press, 2009.
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆


Choose: A quick death…Or slow poison…

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…

Thanks to Goodreads for the summary.

Please be aware there are references to sexual assault/abuse in this review.

Poison Study has an interesting concept. It’s about a woman who has been accused and found guilty of murdering the son of a general. She’s sentenced to death, but is saved by the Commander requiring a food taster, as there’s a paranoid belief his food may be poisoned by those who prepare it. And with good reason. With the Commander infamous for overthrowing the king, many of the king’s previous allies and employees still reside in Ixia.

Yelena finds herself tossed into a world of political intrigue, attempted assassinations, and magic.

Which should be interesting, right?

It isn’t.

Poison Study has an interesting concept going for it. Not only is its protagonist actually guilty of the crime she’s accused of — and doesn’t shy away from saying “I did do it and I’d do it again” — but she’s never apologetic for it. And I like that about this book. It’s one of the only things I did like about it. Yelena isn’t your typical protagonist falsely accused of a crime she didn’t commit. She did it. And she owns it.

We are told many times Yelena is a smart and resourceful young woman, but we never see it. And if we do, I never did. I was told too much. Yelena is meant to be smart. Yelena is meant to be intriguing. Yelena is meant to be so captivatingly interesting in being an enigma to the great Valek that she captures his attention and heart.

Yet, I never saw this.

Yelena seemed to have too much befall her, and struggled to swim. She sunk too many times, and only did she resurface out of pure coincidence. But we’re told she’s a great swimmer. In this incredibly violent current of Ixia politics and life, Yelena’s someone we’re meant to believe can easily hold her own against the likes of Valek.

I feel like there was a severe disconnect between who Yelena should’ve been and who Yelena actually was. She felt one-dimensional a lot of the time. Compassionate yet naive, strong yet insecure — Yelena had the makings of an interesting character, but the execution was boring.

Yelena’s friend, Rand, turns out to be a traitor. And while she has every right to be angry with him, we see that she’s a character who doesn’t quite forgive so easily. Which is a trait anyone can have, yet, when Rand dies, Yelena feels nothing for a man who had been warm and compassionate to her, despite selling her movements behind her back. Where was the struggle in trying to reconcile the Rand she knew with the true Rand? Rand wasn’t a character who was evil, either. For someone who is meant to be compassionate, caring about her sisters back in her own childhood home, Yelena has none for Rand. When he dies, he’s dead. She feels nothing. We don’t even revisit it again. We don’t even hear her think of Rand’s lover and her grief for him.

And, yet, with a character she has known for her stay in the castle, Yelena easily trusts a strange magician who has given her no indication she’s not playing her and has known for only a few spare minutes. The storyline with the magic was predictable the moment the buzzing was introduced, and it played out as I expected. Of course Yelena is powerful. Of course Yelena will be able to harness her powers with no training at all. It felt predictable and clunky, and I would’ve preferred if Yelena remained a mere mortal, to be truthful.

Yelena is meant to hold this book together, but she’s barely able to carry its weight.

The dialogue in the book was utterly painful. Not only did it tell too much, speaking clunky and what I feel to be unnaturally, it was boring. There was no subtly in the book. Everything had to hit you in the face. People lie, people are unreliable narrators, people are flawed, yet I didn’t feel like this was captured in the book. In fact, the dialogue told too much, just like the narration. There were large clumps of speech with little to no indication of tone or even whether someone flinched or sneezed.

Again, Poison Study told too much. And it does it again with its core relationship.

Valek and Yelena have little to no chemistry. I don’t understand his interest in her, let alone his romantic interest in her. He’s meant to be a badass who is feared through Ixia, intimidating in his political prowess and in his ability to kill anyone. We are told he loves her and will give up his own life for her, yet, I’m not shown why. Why does he like this woman? Other than her being a mystery as she isn’t forthcoming with her backstory as he may like. Why does he even care about her well-being when all their interactions are with him in a position of power and her being his plaything?

To be honest, the dynamic between Valek and Yelena is one I don’t like at all. All throughout the book, he’s been testing her. Her life is literally in his hands. He poisons her and lies to her and even manipulates her a little, and, yet, they’re meant to be the OTP of the story.

Yelena’s backstory is a tragic one, and it’s compelling, too, in its potential for her as a character. If Yelena had been constructed properly, I believe she would’ve been an incredibly interesting character. Yet, her potential is left unharnessed. She’s a survivor, and she is a survivor throughout the book, but I don’t see much of her strength, whether mental or physical or emotional, as I would’ve liked.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s there, and it’s what kept me reading, but I would’ve preferred it to be more at the forefront of the story. Her story of survival is one that’s prominent throughout the book, but I feel the focus of it is one that lets it down. Her history with General Brazell is left much in the background for me, and he’s too comical of a villain at times for me to take him seriously.

It’s in her past with his son, Reyard, that I find her interactions to be the most interesting, and her strength to be at its most obvious and palpable.

The abuse Yelena suffers at the hands of Reyard and Brazell is incredibly confronting, and while I don’t believe much of this story is strong, this is. While I find the function of Reyard’s ghost haunting Yelena to be comical at best, as I believe it could’ve been worked to serve a better purpose if it had been constructed in a different way, the way Yelena deals with her PTSD is something I think the book can be commended for. It’s realistic in its portrayal of an abuse survivor. It isn’t offensive. I would’ve liked to have read more about this Yelena than the magical girl who has the heart of the big, badass Valek, and somehow has the trust of everyone she meets. That is what the story should’ve been about, yet, it played second fiddle to the magic and Criollo storyline that was at its core.

The only redeeming portions of the book are the interactions with Janco and Ari. Playing off of one another really well, their dynamic was the only one that I felt was truly natural. I wish we got to see more of them than anyone else in the book. Their backstories were interesting and I found them to simply be real people for me. Their adoration of Yelena is true and realistic and supported by the text, as well as their own development, and their strength as a duo is one I think is great. They’re meant to be the comedic breath of fresh air, but I find that they are the two pillars who hold Yelena up. Never do they knock her down. They’re what true friends are made of.

The Commander is an interesting character I wish we had gotten to see more. The relationship between Yelena and Commander Ambrose is almost non-existent, and, yet, the Commander is literally the most interesting and complex character in the series. I’m not too sure of how I feel about the framing of Commander Ambrose’s secret, as I felt it could’ve been handled slightly better, but it really touched on the political issue of men vs. women in positions of power. I don’t want to give it away, as this was the only portion of the book that surprised me, but I feel the story could’ve been better if it was about the Commander and Yelena. Or even the Commander as the protagonist. The moment the Commander’s secret was revealed, he took centre stage, and I was sad when he was pushed back behind the curtain once his act was over.

There’s much I can say about Poison Study. It’s interesting to read and push through a book I don’t feel meshes well with what I like to find in the stories I read, but I suppose I require a little more subtlety in my stories than what this book has. Interesting concept, but, in my opinion, poor execution. I’ll be surprised if I pick up the next book in this series.

There’s no Goodreads quick review summary for this book on my account as I ended up being incredibly too busy to jot my thoughts down.


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