I hate to sound like a rabid fan girl but -- THIS BOOK WAS AMAZIIIIIIING. VALEK I LOVE YOU PLZ HAVE MY BABIES KTHX!!!!!!1! And now that I have that out of my system . . . I have been wanting to read Poison Study for a looooong time. Everyone had good things to say about it, and the blasted thing was popping up left and right on those "people who liked this book also read . . ." lists. And this book lived up to ALL the hype.
Yelena is about to be executed for the murder of her caretaker's son when she is offered an alternative: she can be the Commander's taste-tester. The book takes place in a fantasy world ruled by martial law after the old king was killed, with the lands divided up into districts governed by Commanders or Generals (if you've ever read Hunger Games, the layout is quite similar). She quickly finds that poison testing is no picnic. Her boss, Valek, puts her up to numerous tests involving smelling, searching, and tasting poisons -- which sometimes results in bouts of horrible illnesses. As there is such a strong incentive for escape, Valek also feeds Yelena a poison called Butterfly Dust, which will kill her slowly and terribly should she try to run away.
I liked Yelena's character. She's very strong but vulnerable at the same time -- as the plot progresses, she starts to heal from her weaknesses and learn from mistakes and grow stronger in a different, more healthy way. I liked how self-sufficient she was, and how rarely she had to rely on rescue from another man. Valek was hot with a capital H, but there weren't passages devoted to his gorgeous good looks until the very end, when Yelena actually started considering him as a love interest. Mostly, I think, she was attracted to his personality and his confidence. All of the characters in this book had fantastic personalities -- they were complex, with conflicting motives, and often acted in unpredictable ways. It's been a while since I've read a book with such sparkling characterization -- especially in the third person! Like there's this one memorable scene where Margg, the housekeeper who has it in for Yelena, insults her and then storms out -- but she trips over the fold of her dress, ruining her exit. There are lots of instances like that, where the characters' human tendency to err shows through and I liked that.
Maria Snyder also doesn't hold back on the unpleasantness. Being sick makes you coated in vomit. Being in prison means no baths, which means bodily odors. Characters are not spared the unpleasant consequences of bodily secretions and poor living conditions. This lends a concrete sense of reality to the plot, which makes the scarier moments much more terrifying. Especially when Yelena finds that her new post at her Commander's castle is a veritable wasp's nest of intrigues. Spies are everywhere, and some of them work for the father of the man she killed, who desperately wants revenge. Her Commander seems to be in the center of it all, which leads her to make some pretty serious choices regarding which side she'll take and how she's going to find out what's going on without getting herself killed. I read the entire book in under 24 hours and picked up the sequel, MAGIC STUDY, from the library today. Katniss Everdeen, eat your heart out.