Book Review

Keeper Shelf: Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

CW: child harm, threatened rape, bloody violence

How do I love thee, let me count the ways. Specifically, there are six ways in which I love you, Poison Study.

Reason, the first: Yelena

Yelena is a badass. She survives cruel General Brazell’s torturous “children’s home” by killing her torturer, the General’s son Reyad. Of course, Brazell is now all aboard the SS Vengeance, destination: Yelena. But Yelena has an unlikely hero in The Rules. More on this later. For now, I’d love to rhapsodise a bit more on how extraordinary Yelena is.

Usually first person narration drives me a little nuts, but I love being inside Yelena’s perspective. It gives me the distinct pleasure and privilege of seeing the world as a brave, strategic, empathic person sees it. It’s a good place to be. The world building is deftly woven into the narrative. I traverse this world, seeing it through Yelena’s eyes. “Sheltered” as she has been, she and I discover the world around her together. The bravery and openness with which she interacts with her world stokes the fires of my curiosity.

Reason, the second: the world

The world of this novel is split into two countries. First, we have Sitia and its magical peoples. Second, we have Yelena’s country: Ixia which is divided into 8 military districts, each ruled by a general. The leader of MD6 is The Commander and the head of the entire state. This Commander has no time for rule-breaking. (I told you we’d come back for this.) Yelena killed someone, so she must be punished, extenuating circumstances be damned. Yelena is put on death row. A year later salvation comes in the unlikely form of a role serving the Commander: being his food taster. And so she embarks on a whole new life at the Commander’s side, privy to all sorts of intrigues and secrets.

Reason, the third: the plot

Sometimes I like knowing what’s going to happen before it actually happens. It’s comforting. But, BUT that is not how I feel when it comes to fantasy novels. I need to be Constantly. Surprised. And indeed I was surprised by who Yelena falls in love with (see below) and by the choices that Yelena makes. It helps that my memory for plot is notoriously dismal, so with each reread I am surprised afresh.

Reason, the fourth: the hero (SWOON!)

Our heroine has a hero, and I’m hiding him behind spoilers because he’s a delicious surprise.

Show Spoiler

For me the love between Valek and Yelena was a revelation as this was the first book I read where the delicious love between the two leads was not a point of tension or angst. Valek loves Yelena. Yelena loves Valek. Simple. Whether they are in the same place or not, that love does not shift. Valek does not stand in Yelena’s way as Yelena gains power. He, a powerful man in his own right, is not afraid to be enamoured with his superior in insight and power.

Reason, the fifth: Yelena’s friends

Our heroine makes friends. True, genuine friends. And how dear those friends are to her! Her friendships are with fully-rounded characters in their own right. And that’s one of the strengths of this book, and, indeed, this series: the supporting characters are real, compelling people.

Reason, the sixth: There’s a whole series!

There are more books! I’ve chosen to focus on the one which I have reread the most often (Poison Study) but there are so SO many more books (nine to be exact, with an extra six short stories and novellas) in this world. So you needn’t surface from this wonderful world for many many days should you so wish. Escape is not only possible but guaranteed.

In conclusion

If we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic and all its concomitant ills, I would have listed at least 20 more effusive reasons why I love this book, but all of them would have been spoilers. That I can put fingers to keyboard at all when it feels like the world is falling down around me is testament itself to the power of this book to make me believe that things will be okay. If you’re in need of being in a different time and space with people who make good decisions when faced with bad things, then come join me and Yelena in Ixia.

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Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

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  1. 1
    Sue D. says:

    Bonus point for new vocab word (concomitant)! great review. thanks!

  2. 2
    JE says:

    Ordering this one! What a compelling review.

  3. 3
    Jazzlet says:

    Thank you for reminding me of this series, time for a reread I think!

  4. 4
    Jennifer says:

    I loved Poison Study. The next two books were not quite as good but still pretty good. However, the next series about Opal was…excruciatingly, agonizingly bad. Like “I can never, ever read this author again” level of bad. Like “this girl is making terrible life choices she seems to know are terrible but doing it anyway, and the love interest is a nightmare” level of bad.

    So if you read the series, just stick to the first three, folks.

  5. 5
    Big K says:

    Did stop reading after book three, though I may give them another shot. However, I’ve read a lot of fantasy, and this book is one of my all time favorites, so I hope it helps get people through this tough time for all the reasons described above.

  6. 6
    CarolynM says:

    Much to my delight, I find I already own this book (bought in 2015 but never read). Downloaded it again and when I’m finished glomming Sarina Bowen’s True North series, I’ll dive right in.

    Thank you for bringing it to my attention again.

  7. 7
    Lisa says:

    @Jennifer, I had the exact same experience. Hard DNF’d the Opal books and it really soured me on Poison Study (which I loved) and the author.

  8. 8
    Anna C says:

    @Lisa & @Jennifer, SAME!!

    Poison Study was phenomenal, particularly for a debut novel, and the next two were less “squee” and more “sure, I’ll take more of Yelena & [love interest], please.” Opal’s books were appallingly bad, and then I just couldn’t continue when Snyder published another Yelena-centered trilogy. I think I read the first one, but I felt like none of them would live up to Poison Study, so why bother?

  9. 9
    Lora says:

    I want to read this and, oddly, I’m not bothered at all that it will jump the shark after book three. One of my favorites is Sharing Knife Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold, and after that book, the series fell apart and I gave up. Yet my love for book one is undiminished. I’ll take an excellent first book anytime and just enjoy it. Thank you!

  10. 10
    Nicole says:

    Hmm, I wonder if it’s worth a reread. I read this book once before, but ended up disliking it because of who the hero is to her (a trope that I really dislike), and some vaguely mentioned idea of the villain being trans. But I don’t remember at all about all of these elements that you adored.

  11. 11
    TinaNoir says:

    I ADORED this book. Loved everything about it.

    I was meh on the second one.

    Hated the third one.

    But to this day, I still love this one.

  12. 12
    Riley says:

    I just want to clarify that the trans character in question is *not* the overall villain – iirc, I admired them quite a lot before the revelation. They’re certainly portrayed as sympathetic imo. (The character’s not nb, I’m just trying to avoid spoilers.) [obligatory cisclaimer here*]

    Also, I might actually give the sequel series another shot, but I want to make sure people know that there are specifically some hinky consent dynamics in it.

    *because I’m cis and should probably mention that. Geddit?

  13. 13
    Kareni says:

    I’ve read all the other books in this series once; however, I’ve read Poison Study half a dozen times. Now you’re tempting me to reread! Thanks for the squee, Lara.

  14. 14
    Lizzy says:

    I read this 5 years ago and I know I like it and told a friend about it but I don’t remember anything at all.

  15. 15
    Marg says:

    I am rereading this at the moment after 14 years. Really enjoying being back in this world.

  16. 16
    Jazzlet says:

    Huh, I bounced off the second trilogy too, useful to know it wasn’t just me.

  17. 17
    Misti says:

    This is on my keeper shelf too, but like others, the series went downhill for me and I didn’t finish the Opal books. But I love Poison Study so much. I can just re-read it over and over and leave it at that.

  18. 18
    Barbara says:

    I decided to get this book for my Kindle yesterday, based on this review.Turns out, on German Amazon you can get a box set of books 1-6 for EUR 4.99 (English language version).

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