If you are looking for a riveting high fantasy with innovative world-building, endearing and diverse characters, with a side of romance, this is the novel you are looking for.
The premise of the book obviously hinted at a fast-paced novel, and I was expecting brainless summer reading. Which it is, in a way, but there's much more to it than I was expecting.
The world building is surprising. Maria Snyder manages to create a high fantasy with a very modern feeling. There are castles and sword fights and a distinct lack of let's say, motors or advanced technology, but the military have taken over the old Kingdom of Ixia. Instead of kings and courts, we get commanders and very specialized and efficient districts. Military District 5, or MD-5, manufactures wool. I know this political organization of territory is now well-known because of The Hunger Games, but Poison Study was published a whole three years earlier. There is a hint of the begining of an industrial revolution, since factories are being built. The takeover seems to have been generally good, in that the population of Ixia now lives in a society that grants equal opportunity and justice to all, and judges the aptitude of workers based on skills alone, not on bloodlines or gender.
On the other hand, Snyder doesn't shy away from showing the downside of what is essentially a military dictatorship: penalties for crimes are excessively severe and set in stone, people are made to wear distinctive uniforms which help identifying those who are where they shouldn't (one can't freely travel or stroll), purpose and efficiency come before everything else, and there is a distinct lack of imagination and artistry. Freedom is severly undercut. This is exemplified by Rand's story arc, a cook loyal to the former King. His story is quite tragic. The Commander and Valek, the spy master, indirectly caused the death of his mother and broke his kneecap, making him disabled, in order to force him to cook for them. He repeatedly betrays Yelena even though he deeply cares for her, and sells information to enemies of the state. He is between a rock and a hard place, and it's impossible not to forgive his actions.
The political system works because Commander Ambrose, the man in charge, is usually very fair and understanding, barring his complexities. If this system were kept after Commander Ambrose died, Ixia would veer into dystopia. And here is where the whole crux of the story really lies. There is an underhand rebellion to eliminate Commander Ambrose, and Yelena is instrumental in deciding the future of Ixia. But don't think of parallelisms with Katniss; this is a whole different story. This particular rebellion would only steer things for the worse, so Yelena must save the Commander.
From the very beginning we know that Yelena, though young, is not helpless or naive. She is, after all, about to be executed because she stabbed the son of Commander Brazell (MD-5) to death. The details of this murder are slowly revealed throughout the novel, which definitely helps building the mystery and the pace. As Yelena is our main character and we are exposed to her constantly, it is obvious that her behaviour doesn't fit that of a murderer. On the contrary, she seems to have suffered endless years of torture, so it is easy to suspect that the stabbing was in self-defense. When the final picture is revealed, it is impossible to blame her for the crime. The whole episode is described quite straightforwardly. It isn't gratuitously graphic, but it is hard to stomach nonetheless.
Her new position as poison taster, even though it entails many risks, is definitely an improvement over her previous role as Commander Brazell's puppet. Although she sometimes looked like a bit of a Mary Sue (beautiful, skilled acrobat, naturally good at poison tasting, intelligent, has extra rare magical abilities, quick learner, you get the drill), she is a determined young woman who spends time honing her skills, works hard to learn what she needs to know, and is respected for being smart. It's a joy of a main character, is what I'm saying. In fact, there is no shortage of strong women in this novel: from Margg, the second-in-command of the security force, to Dilana, Maren, or Irys the magician. All of them are intelligent and use their skills in unexpected ways.
I also loved her friendship with Carra and Mia, and with Ari and Janco. I would have loved it if the friendship with Dilana or Maren would have been explored further, since the women Yelena meets in the castle are mostly hostile towards her, but it was good enough this way to show how someone so marked by abuse could learn to trust.
Which leads us to Valek. I knew there was romance in this novel, and I thought it would take center stage. I was clearly wrong. The political intrigues and awesome fight sequences come first. While the slow burn romance is always there, it is not what defines Yelena. And for that I'm glad. Now please bear with me, because I am not equipped to talk about romances yet. I'm a newbie in the genre. I can't see Valek as dreamy, since he has many problems of his own, but I see that he is just perfect for Yelena. The age difference doesn't bother me in the least, since Yelana is extremely mature. After all, she has gone through a lot. For a while I thought Snyder was going to write an awkward love triangle involving Rand, but that wasn't the case. It was a case of Valek and Yelena learning to live with their pasts and slowly falling in love. The sexual tension appeared before Yelena was healed enough to be capable of real love, and I liked that Valek refused to go through until Yelena had literally waved goodbye to the ghosts of her past.
On the other hand, the scene when they finally get together was a bit anticlimatic. After 400 pages of well-written tension, the ending was a little bland. I already have Magic Study, so let's see what happens now.
Have you read any good fantasy lately?