Book Review : Poison Study

Book Review : Poison StudyPoison Study by Maria V. Snyder
Published by Mira on March 1st 2007
Genres: Fiction, General, Fantasy
Pages: 416
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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 Dusté 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—.

After reading part of City of Lies, a book about food tasters, and finding it disappointing, I got the urge to reread Poison Study, which I remembered as doing a much better job focusing on the tasting for poisons aspect. So imagine my surprise when I realized that I must have had my rose-colored glasses on for my first read through of Poison Study years ago! Poison Study wasn’t nearly as good as I remembered and I found the character development lacking, the study of poisons glossed over, and other parts of the novel unbelievable.


“This may work out better than I’d planned. Yelena, I’m offering you a choice. You can either be executed, or you can be Commander Ambrose’s new food taster. His last taster died recently, and we need to fill the position.”


The novel follows Yelena, a prisoner on death row for the murder of the man who took her into his orphanage. When the previous food taster dies, as part of the Code of Conduct, the next prisoner scheduled for execution is given the opportunity to become the new food taster for Commander Ambrose. Yelena jumps at the chance offered by her new teacher and right hand man to the Commander, Valek, to keep on living. But before she knows it, the past comes back to haunt her and new challenges also emerge.


Though I absolutely loved Poison Study the first time I read it, especially for its slow-burn romance between Valek and Yelena, as well as its intrigue and strange magics, on this second read through, I found the novel pretty lacking. This time around, I was kind of horrified by the burgeoning love story between Valek and Yelena, especially because the former is essentially holding the latter hostage and poisons her on the daily to ensure she doesn’t try to escape her new duties. With that alone in mind, there’s absolutely no way this relationship could be construed as healthy.


And even if you ignore the daily poisonings, Valek is still someone who is her boss and is in charge of her daily safety and continued success in her career, and isn’t above testing her loyalty in any way he can think up. At one point he even expresses relief when Yelena breaks into his office to look for the cure for the daily poison she is given, as she is acting how expects, meaning he can continue to predict and control her with her ease. There is very little truth between Yelena and Valek, and Yelena never really considers that any romantic overtures by Valek could just be another form of control. I never bought that these two actually caught feelings for each other.


Moving on from the entire problematic romance, I was also confused at Yelena’s past as an acrobat, and what’s more, how quickly she picked that back up after years of being imprisoned and malnourished, and now attacked and poisoned on the daily in her new position. But in no time at all, Yelena is swinging from trees and doing all kinds of physical activity such as learning how to fight, on top of tasting food, dodging angry men from the orphanage and magicians who want to recruit her, because if she already isn’t special enough, Yelena also has magical powers.


“Magic, a forbidden word in Ixia since Commander Ambrose came to power. Magicians had been treated like disease-riddled mosquitoes. They were hunted, trapped and exterminated. Any hint or suggestion that someone had magic was a death sentence. The only chance to live was to escape to Sitia.”


Making these magical powers seem even more random is the fact that the world-building in Poison Study is rather vague, and consists of districts, which are overseen by Generals, who in turn, report to Commander Ambrose. To the south of the Commander’s rule in Ixia, is another free territory, known as Sitia, home to powerful and dangerous magicians. Meanwhile in the Commander’s “kingdom,” so to speak, magic is completely outlawed, and anyone with a hint of it is executed with little fanfare.  Despite what seems a pretty bleak society, with districts overseen by military, and those with magic put to death, Poison Study never really construes itself as a dystopian society, which seems odd to me. However, the former ruling family, with a King at its head, when referenced a time or two, didn’t seem any better.


To me, that is a lot of the problem with Poison Study, where much of the pertinent background information is purposefully vague or brushed under the rug. We are never really given the opportunity to compare regimes or the way things are in the south. Though we get flashbacks to Yelena’s past in the orphanage, and see some of her experienced abuse, we don’t get anything much beyond that. We are told she was close friends with some of the other children there, but we are never shown this friendship at all beyond this passing statement. It’s just an illusion to make Yelena and her past seem more fleshed out than it actually is, but in reality there isn’t much there. The same is true of other characters, like Valek, who tell readers their past at one point, but don’t seem to have any actual development beyond this one flashback. It’s a shame that there isn’t more substance to these characters beyond the surface level, as it makes it very hard to feel attached to the characters.


When Yelena is betrayed by a friend, I felt nothing. Likewise, when another friend is injured protecting her,  I similarly felt no tension or upset. Other “revelations” had no impact on me whatsoever as well, and reading Poison Study was almost like having a very bland outside of the body experience where nothing really affected me one way or the other. I wish Poison Study had taken more time to flesh out its characters and their past, explored more  of the world-building and its magic system (as I still have no idea where magic comes from and why certain people have it even after reading the entire book), and had managed an even remotely healthy romance. Any further development for the characters, their pasts, or the world-building or magic system, would have been a much better use of time than any of Yelena’s self-defense training or randomly playing fugitive for some kind of unnecessary military exercise. 


I found it really hard to believe that anyone would let Yelena participate in this fugitive exercise in the first place. She is the new food taster, who is barely trained, and with hired killers after her. But I guess Commander Ambrose and Valek like to keep her scared and grateful, as Ambrose offers her actual pay for participating in an exercise that risks his new taster, and Valek once again shows up to save the day. Honestly, what little conflict occurs in Poison Study, such as attacks at fire festivals, and this attack during the fugitive exercise, feels very contrived and unnatural–almost like some sort of soap opera where drama is randomly thrown in with little build-up to increase the tension. I would have gladly traded these forced dramas for more of Yelena’s day to day life becoming a food taster.


It did feel like she was a fully-trained food taster after about a whole minute of training. Valek remarked that he didn’t believe she was ready, but her training isn’t really continued after that, and she is completely trusted to the be the sole person tasting Ambrose’s food. For a novel titled Poison Study, there wasn’t very much studying going on. It also struck me as odd that Ambrose and Valek did not keep at least two food tasters trained at all times, since the job has a notoriously high mortality rate. Instead, Valek simply served as the back up, despite being a very important spy master, and the trainer of the food tasters. This seems like a pretty big flaw.


Another huge fault I found was the novel’s rather pitiful explanation of its magical system. Perhaps other entries in the series will get more into the magical system and world-building, but I don’t feel any urge to read these future installments. I also don’t think that it should take multiple entries in a series to get a basic understanding of the world and a description of the magic system that goes beyond using a blanket as an incredibly vague explanation:


“The source of our power—what you call magic—is like a blanket surrounding the world. Our minds tap into this source, pulling a slender thread down to enhance our magical abilities, to turn them on. Every person has the latent ability to read minds and influence the physical world without touching it, but they don’t have the ability to connect with the power source.”


Ultimately, Poison Study is a decent and very basic fantasy novel that is enjoyable if you don’t look too closely at it. Though it doesn’t offer much in the way of basic fantasy tenets, such as world-building and magical system explanations, it has an entertaining enough story line to keep readers invested throughout. If you need a light beach read or a book to read in between heavier fare, Poison Study might be the book for you. Meanwhile, I’ll still be on the hunt for the perfect fantasy novel about food tasters, which spends the right amount of time teaching the craft and blending court politics with world-building and magical systems.

Book Review : Poison Study - Blogging with Dragons

Posted February 22, 2022 in Book Reviews, Fantasy


2 responses to “Book Review : Poison Study

  1. You know, I had considered rereading these books too, recently. I remembered loving Poison Study when I read it yeears ago but I’ve had this inkling that it was not as good as I remembered and you’ve kinda covered what I anticipated here. I may leave this author in my reading past. ?

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