So, in the wake of the Maria V. Snyder books I've read recently being, well, disappointments compared to what I remembered Poison Study, Snyder's first book, being, I decided to re-read Poison Study and then the rest of Snyder's books and do an examination of what, writing-wise, happened in them to lead to what I personally feel is a decrease in quality. Obviously, the best place to star this was the beginning, so I grabbed Poison Study from the library (my own copy is a couple of hundred miles away) and got reading.
Poison Study is Snyder's first book, and I can completely see why it landed her the opportunity to write more. It begins with Yelena, a young woman awaiting her execution in the dungeons of Ixia's Commander. Ixia has an absolute zero-tolerance policy for murderers, and so Yelena's bound for the noose...except she isn't. Luckily for her, there is a loophole in the zero-tolerance policy. The Commander's food taster recently died, and Ixia's militaristic Code of Behavior dictates that the position of food taster be offered to the next prisoner on death row. Enter Yelena. When Valek, the Commander's right-hand man and expert in the arts of assassination, poisons, and general sneakery, offers Yelena the job, she takes it, even though it doesn't pay anything--as Valek says, "The food taster is paid in advance. How much is your life worth?"
But just because Yelena isn't going to be hung doesn't mean she can't die in any manner of other nasty ways--like poisoning purposeful or accidental, having her throat slit by goons of her victim's father, being assassinated by a magician from the neighboring realm of Sitia, etc. And while she deals with these continued threats on her life, she also has to deal with burgeoning magical powers that are illegal in Ixia, evil chocolate, and of course Valek himself. Throughout the book, Valek serves varied roles, such as mentor, protector, love interest, and even potential murderer. He's definitely one of the coolest characters in the book, and I wish his relationship with Yelena had been a bit more pronounced. It's not really a slow burn, because it's so subtle for most of the book, until BAM! it isn't anymore. But Valek was awesome no matter what, having an immense repertoire of skills and knowledge while still managing to be human.
Poison Study is also much tighter than the other Snyder books I've read recently. All of the plot threads weave together into a coherent whole without any of the dropped plots I've seen from her lately. Only one character (the briefly-seen Mia) seemed to be superfluous; everyone else was worked in very carefully to suit Snyder's purposes. This was such a relief, you can't even imagine! I was so, so, so happy to realize that yes indeed, Poison Study did live up to my memories of it. The writing's a bit rougher than I remember (I find first-person writing to be rougher in general, no matter who is holding the pen), and Snyder has a thing for info-dumping from time to time, but the book as a whole was great. She doesn't shy away from Yelena's traumatic past at all; the book actually starts with Yelena's memories of being tortured so really, you know what you're getting into here. She's a murderer who doesn't regret her actions at all, but is still a good person with a steady moral compass. Basically she's great. I never felt that Yelena was being blatantly stupid. I never wanted to smack her for a dumb decision. Sometimes she delayed a good decision for a while, but she didn't let it get to the point that it was a danger to herself and others, and she always went into situations as prepared as she could be, even if it didn't necessarily end up in her favor.
Ixia is an interesting setting, too--a country under a militaristic government but not at war, settling into the new way of life after generations of living in the shadow of what seems to have been a tyrannical monarchy. Actually, a book set during that era could be really interesting. The magic system isn't really developed fully because magic is forbidden in Ixia (though it does exist and does occur) but that didn't bother me because it's clearly going to be developed more in Poison Study's sequel, Magic Study, and a robust magical system wasn't important to the overall plot of the book.
So, to conclude, yes: Poison Study was all that I remembered it being. It's a great story with a strong heroine who, despite having a tragic past, isn't cliched in the slightest. Yelena and Valek are compelling main characters and are fully capable of carrying this story to its conclusion. Poison Study is a great, unusual fantasy book, and I think it's worth a read for most fantasy lovers out there.
4.5 stars out of 5.