Maria V. Snyder,
Poison Study
(Luna, 2005)

Readers who have been avoiding Harlequin's Luna imprint for fear that "romantic sf/fantasy" is actually romance in a flimsy fantasy disguise may find in Maria V. Snyder's debut, Poison Study, reason to reconsider. Within its pages is more poison than passion, and considerably more stomachs heave than bosoms. All in all, it's a refreshing change from both the average romance and average fantasy novels.

Poison Study, the first of a projected series of unknown length, is set in the Territory of Ixia. Having eradicated its king, aristocracy and sorcerers some years ago in a complete political upheaval, the country is now ruled fairly, if strictly, by a military dictator, Commander Ambrose. As the story begins, Yelena has been languishing in prison for almost a year awaiting execution for a murder she has never denied committing. Unexpectedly (and perhaps a bit illogically), the Commander's spymaster and chief adviser Valek provides a temporary reprieve from death by offering Yelena a job as a food taster to the Commander himself.

Along with dealing with the obvious drawbacks of such a job -- its lifelong term (however short or long that may be) and the nearly fatal training period that leaves her dependent on a daily antidote only Valek possesses, Yelena finds herself increasingly embroiled in political intrigue and danger at the court. There is something rotten in the Territory of Ixia: information leakages, murder plots, outlawed southern magic -- and, of course, poison. No one is trustworthy: not Magg, the sullen, resentful housekeeper, not Rand, a brilliant cook with an easy smile and divided loyalties -- and certainly not Valek, poison expert, master fighter, former assassin and killer of the last king of Ixia. On top of all that, Yelena must finally wrestle with the literal ghosts of her past, outwit the people who would still quite like to see her dead and come to terms with unexpected awakenings of magic within herself.

And did I mention that chocol -- "criollo," rather -- is involved? There's a slight everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel to Poison Study; it's part courtly intrigue tale, part magical coming-of-age tale, part military training tale and (thankfully small) part romance.

Told in Yelena's accessible first-person narration, the book reads easily, containing an abundance of action without getting bogged down by it. The setting differs just enough from conventional high fantasy to be refreshing, the variety of poisons, antidotes and reactions are interesting, and the characters are likable enough -- though the main protagonists are just a little too good at everything. On the plus side, few characters -- including the Commander, a dangerous southern mage and a traitor or two -- are cast as either morally black or white -- a sign of future sophistication that some other fantasy authors may never attain.

Maria V. Snyder does quite well for a first-time writer, though occasional cringe-worthy phrases ("dangerous and flashing blue eyes" that have previously also been described as "sapphire"), a few utterly predictable plot twists and contrived scenes, and the feeling that there may be just a bit too much stuffed into a single book keep Poison Study from being an exceptional fantasy novel. It's still quite a readable one, and unlike many books in series, stands fairly well on its own. Fans of Mercedes Lackey who are looking for something a little grittier will probably enjoy it and its upcoming sequel, Magic Study. However, for a riskier and less conventional combination of poison and fantasy, Liz Williams's The Poison Master is a must.

by Jennifer Mo
25 March 2006

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