Poison Study is a nifty little tale of intrigue featuring a worthy protagonist that makes for a commendable debut for Maria Snyder. Her storytelling in this maiden effort is solidly engrossing, and the novel promises good things to come from her in the future. But there are numerous nitpicks that pepper the plot, to put it politely. Though there's much entertainment value here, I'd have been more enthusiastic in my final verdict had Snyder provided just a bit more detail to resolve several nagging questions I had about her world and its politics.
The story is set in the former kingdom of Ixia, which is now a militarist, fascist regime run with a firm but not brutal hand by one Commander Ambrose, who overthrew the former monarch and all of the corrupt magicians in his court. The laws he has put in place, under the rather patronizing title of the Code of Behavior, divide the land into several military districts and require all citizens to wear uniforms and work at assigned jobs, a system under which no one, peculiarly, has seen fit to rebel. Among the Code's many inflexible laws are those making magic, as well as all forms of killing, even when done in self-defense, a capital crime. And it is this that has doomed Yelena, accused of murdering the son of General Brazell, the governor of one of Ixia's districts.
But Yelena is offered a reprieve from the gallows if she consents to work as the Commander's food taster, which really isn't much of a reprieve at all. But she consents, making the most of her situation. Though Brazell's loyal followers are itching for a chance to kill her whenever they can take it, Yelena is taken under the protective wing of Ambrose's second in command, Valek. Their relationship is initially wary (especially as he has ensured her loyalty by feeding her a poison for the antidote of which she must come to him daily), but gradually evolves into a mutual respect. But Yelena knows all too well how wary she must be at all times. Can she truly trust anyone at this strange court, where, to be honest, she's only alive at all on sufferance? And is it possible for her to contrive a way to escape to the south, to the land of Sitia where most of Ixia's magicians are said to have fled?
Yelena is an impressively realized character, mostly in that Snyder has her reacting to her circumstances in a way I found believable. In every instance Yelena makes choices, as well as careless mistakes, that I think a real person actually in that situation would make. At no time does Snyder fall into the trap of turning her into some superhero, even when we learn that Yelena, in her youth, developed quite a skill as an acrobat. I can see lesser writers using that as a launching pad for all manner of improbable wire-fu silliness. But even the scene in which Yelena thwarts some pursuers by traveling treetop to treetop never smacks of implausibility.
Yelena suspects that she possesses a latent magic skill, just one more thing to get her in trouble in this land with a zero-tolerance policy on the stuff. But when those suspicions are confirmed by a master magician from Sitia, who first tries to kill her then changes tactics to recruit her, Yelena must decide where her loyalties really lie. Would it be in her best interests to flee after all, or are there good reasons to keep an allegiance to Valek and the few others in the Ixian court with whom she has forged actual friendships? And would staying loyal be worth the risk of incurring Brazell's vengeance, which could come without warning?
So far so good on the story. I had a bit more trouble, however, getting a grip on the backstory. Despite the absorbing storytelling, I never found the political structure of Ixia altogether convincing. For one thing, why is Ixia's populace so amenable to the Code of Behavior, to being made to wear color-coded uniforms and have their life's work assigned to them in childhood? We get hints that the monarchy was cruel. But is Ambrose's brand of fascism so much more preferable? Why would he have set up a government like this, instead of a free republic or something? If the main complaint against the magicians and the king was that they were cruel and corrupt, how is totalitarianism better? And what does requiring uniforms, assigning jobs and slashing tapestries have to do with Ambrose's pathological hatred of magic itself? We don't really get a sense of what the Ixian "man on the street" feels about Ambrose (maybe because they're scared?), nor do we get an idea if Ixians at large share his anti-magic feelings.
Moreover, Ambrose's curious personal style of governance, which often borders on insouciance, doesn't seem to fit the fascist template. Despite the Code of Behavior, he often comes across as wise King Solomon, calmly listening to debates and treating insubordination like a tolerant father. His character seems really at odds with the kind of country he has created, in which things like religion and even art are banned. Moreover, the nation's internal security has been left entirely to Valek, who doesn't seem to need a jackbooted police force out there keeping order, which fascist dictators throughout history have been wont to use. (There's a militia, but they aren't, you know, Gestapo-scary or anything.) No, it doesn't quite compute. I often criticize fantasies for having too much worldcraft and backstory, but this is a case of not enough.
Given Ambrose's oddly bipolar persona (which is explained cleverly, by the way, though it doesn't clarify his ideas about government), I suppose it's no surprise that Valek and Yelena get wind of a possible coup in the offing, and soon poisoners are the least of Ambrose's problems. Indeed, Yelena's job ends up playing a minute role in unfolding events — which makes sense, as there's not much story to be had in someone just tasting food all day. But another plot incongruity arises as we approach the climax: for a leader who deposed a kingdom of magicians, Ambrose seems far too easily influenced and manipulated by magic. Granted, Snyder does offer an acceptable explanation for why certain events towards the end of the novel are able to occur when by all rights they shouldn't. But a little more consistency in the set-up would have gone a long way. As would an explanation as to why the master magician in charge of all Sitia feels the need to slip incognito into Ixia and sneak about the forests like Aragorn, who at least had the excuse of doing it before he claimed the throne of Gondor. Doesn't she have subordinates or agents for this kind of skulking? It isn't exactly the kind of thing rulers of nations do.
Taking it as pure escapist adventure, I enjoyed Poison Study. It has likable heroes, a story that holds your interest, and an exciting wrapup. It qualifies as one of those books that's wholly satisfying as long as you don't subject the plot to too much close scrutiny. As there are any number of readers who are perfectly happy to enjoy their books in precisely that way, I predict Maria Snyder is on the cusp of a fruitful career. Followed by Magic Study.