Title: Poison Study
Author: Maria V. Snyder
Publisher: Luna, 2005
Where I got it: Hooray for the library and taking books out for free. Also, as a side note, I like this cover, which was the cover for the edition I read. I think it is real nifty and way better than the other ones out there. (In one she has blonde hair, which is SO wrong. What's up with that? Also, they are totally white washing the covers. She's supposed to have bronze skin. NONE of the ones I saw did.)
Yelena is scheduled to die. Sentenced to execution for the murder of her benefactor's son, she is fully prepared to face the consequences of her actions one year later—but she is given an unexpected choice. She is offered the position of food taster to the Commander, leader of Ixia. Choosing the possibility of life over certain death, Yelena is trained to detect poisons in each of the Commander's meals; yet she is constantly looking for a way out. But things get complicated as she forges friendships, discovers betrayal, and unearths several state secrets; all the while, she pushes away her feelings for the impassive and cold Valek, her trainer and the Commander's right-hand man. All she wants is to get out of this situation alive, but at every turn that seems impossible.
I enjoyed Yelena's story. She is an incredibly strong woman, who has undergone and continues to endure pain, torture, abuse and the threat of death. Though her situation vastly improves once she is released from the dungeon, she still lives the nightmares of her past in her mind. Her strength and determination are the only way she is able to live through the initial horrors that led to her imprisonment, her position as food taster and constant target for violence and assassination, and her memories.
I really liked Valek too—incredibly loyal and compassionate beneath his stony exterior, he ended up gaining my trust by the end of the book despite his ease with killing and questionable motives for helping Yelena. I loved watching his and Yelena's relationship slowly develop; neither are sure if they can trust one another, yet a friendship begins to blossom between them without their realizing it.
Most of the secondary characters were just fantastic, too. Rounded and three-dimensional, they all had their faults even if they were good guys. And the Commander is fascinating—though this is a military dictatorship, it seems to work pretty well (at least at the time the book takes place) and he is well-respected and liked for the most part. Though not everyone is happy with the regime, the Commander is not evil as one might expect, and I was very interested in all his personality quirks that are revealed along the way.
As for the plot, I certainly wanted to know where this was all going. There is intrigue, espionage, fighting and mystery-solving going on all over the place. Little twists here and there kept me guessing, though some points were a little predictable (though not much).
I read this for a book group, and though there were only three of us we kept a pretty good discussion going, aided by discussion questions in the back of one of the editions we had. There is a lot going on in this, especially in how the cultures work and why the Commander chose to do certain things over others. A thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable read, I will most likely pick up the sequels at some point (when I find the time, hooray).