Review of Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
by Maria V. Snyder
Reading this book was like reading someone's plot summary of this book. I can't tell if it's Maria V. Snyder's writing or worldbuilding at fault; regardless, the outcome is the same: we are never fully-immersed in this story. Like a stage play, Poison Study is a diorama with two-dimensional scenery and live actors. The only thing keeping the fiction from tumbling down is that thin fourth wall.
Ixia is a former kingdom that suffered a coup d'etat just before Yelena was born. Throughout the book we hear horror stories of monarchy and how life under military discipline is better. I'm sure there's both truth and fiction in such propaganda, but not having seen the kingdom of Ixia, I can only judge its successor state. Now divided into eight military districts, creatively designated MD-1 through MD-8, Ixia is ruled by Commander Ambrose. Together with his generals, who each administer a district, the Commander (as he is called) crafted the military-like Code of Behaviour. Ixia is really serious about the rule of law, and there are no exceptions to the Code. Everyone works, everyone wears uniforms, and every punishment for every infraction is predictable. This really sucks for Yelena, who killed someone in self-defence, since the punishment for murder of any kind is execution.
On its surface, Ixian society is interesting. However, it is as much a fantasy as the magic that later appears in the book. I can easily imagine a military coup followed by an unrelenting Code of Behaviour. But to have such a code cover every possible infraction? I doubt we can ever develop such an iron-clad law that we would have no need of lawyers. Human behaviour is too dynamic, too intricate, to ever fully classify in such a manner. And humans are so creative—both when it comes to good acts and bad ones—that it wouldn't be long before someone ends up in front of the Commander for a crime as-yet unanticipated.
When it comes time for the plot to rescue us from plot summary, Poison Study struggles but doesn't find a niche. And this isn't actually a problem of plot so much as one of characterization. In particular, the two villains, Brazell and Mogkan, fall squarely into the sinister, moustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash school of villainy. In fact, nearly every antagonist in Poison Study is a brute, an idiot, or both. The exceptions are usually characters who turn (either from face to heel or vice versa), e.g., Valek and Rand. Valek begins as the stern, somewhat antagonistic master who will not hesitate to replace—i.e., kill—Yelena should she prove unsatisfactory as the food taster. He warms to her (understatement). Rand is the former king's cook, now the Commander's cook, who has gambling problems that make him beholden to a traitor. He also warms to Yelena (understatement laced with tragedy). These characters, in addition to Yelena, demonstrate that Snyder can write good characters, so Brazell and Mogkan rankle me even more. They just make all the classic villain mistakes, and Yelena's victory seems to owe more to those mistakes than any particularly clever planning on Yelena's part. I don't like those kinds of endings, and Yelena was definitely clever enough to win on her own.
To be fair to Snyder, I really liked Yelena, and she almost makes Poison Study worth reading. Her dilemma is real even if her world is not realistic. She has few allies and fewer friends, and she's still trying to run away from her past. Snyder's intriguing magic system doesn't get a lot of development in this book, something I assume gets remedied in Magic Study. Yelena's need to hide her magic is not, itself, a source of much suspense—we've all seen it before. But Snyder pairs this with a need to learn and develop her powers lest they overload her, which would be fatal to Yelena and dangerous for other practitioners. Thus, not only does Yelena have to keep her abilities secret from her magic-sensing master, but she has a year to develop them or face assassination by an Ixian sorceress. It's a tight deadline, and that is suspenseful.
I must admit, I was rather expecting Poison Study to have more to do with poison than magic. This isn't a criticism of Snyder, because it's her choice how to write the book; my interpretation of the title and the teaser just led me to expect something else. And it didn't quite prepare me for the sudden romance near the end—again, however, Snyder foreshadowed it and developed it throughout the story. So consider this a caution, not a criticism.
No, Poison Study is not a bad book. Unfortunately, watching Yelena reclaim her life—literally—and vanquish her personal demons, saving the country as bonus, is marred by a very pedestrian narrative style. The exposition is not so much dry as it is utilitarian. By focusing only on what is relevant to her plot and not on how Ixian society would realistically function, Snyder creates a world that serves its purpose but nothing more. It's the type of worldbuilding that is perfectly acceptable for entry into the country club of worlds, but only just, and all of the fancy-dressed well-to-do worlds look down on this one. And so do I.