Poison Study—Maria V. Snyder
I remembered my last offer, to be the food taster or to be executed. "What could you possibly offer me? I have a job, color-coordinated uniforms and a boss to die for. What more could I need?" (154)Part of Vaginal Fantasy Rewind
Yelena is awaiting her death in the dungeons when she is called to the office of Valek, the Commander's trusted adviser, spy, and assassin. Valek gives her a choice: she can either be executed as planned, OR she can be the Commander's new food taster. By law, he is required to offer the position when it is open to the next prisoner to be executed. What can Yelena do, choose death instead of possible/probable death by poisoning? She agrees to become the Commander's food taster, and Valek starts training her in the ways of detecting poisons. And Valek keeps her from trying to escape, now that she's got a bit more free reign, by deliberately poisoning her with Butterfly's Dust, a poison for which he has the only antidote, which she must take every 24 hours or die. As if that weren't enough for a young woman to handle, Yelena starts developing magical powers, and in Ixia that's a death sentence in itself.
I loved this book. There were so many little pieces and tidbits, in addition to the larger plotline being well put together, that made me give it five stars on Goodreads. I don't want to say that I'm stingy with my five stars, but unless I absolutely loved something and basically had no big complaints about it, I never give books five stars.
I did guess right away that Butterfly's Dust was bullshit. Maybe I've read or seen enough situations with poison, or maybe I clocked Valek the second we met him, but I just knew that wasn't actually a poison. I didn't guess the part about the "antidote" itself being a poison, so that was a twist for me.
The thing I loved most about the book, I think, were the relationships. I thought that Yelena's relationship with Ari and Janco—the two soldiers who help train her in some self-defense techniques and become good friends—was really touching. The protectiveness they felt for her, without being romantically interested in her, was lovely and not something you see a lot with books that have a female protagonist in such a vulnerable position like this.
Yelena's relationship with Commander Ambrose also takes an interesting turn when she discovers (with her magic) that he was born a woman. Yelena relates this information to us thusly: The Commander's reasons for hating magicians was as clear to me as glass. He was a she, but with the utter conviction that she should have been born a man. That cruel fate had chosen to burden him with a mutation that he had to overcome. And the Commander feared that a magician might pull this secret from his mind. (284) That whole storyline of Commander Ambrose being trans was really surprising and refreshing. Not something you see often in fantasy books, and especially not treated with such grace and explained in such a natural way. The way that Yelena hides this secret information from the rest of the world, including her eventual lover Valek, speaks a lot to Yelena as a person as well as her respect for the Commander.
Last but not least, Yelena's relationship with Valek was almost perfect for me in this first book. They didn't fall into bed together immediately, and in fact, didn't get together in the time (or place) that you thought they would. But the development of the relationship, Yelena's growing trust for him and desire to understand him, was perfect. Valek respects Yelena, and doesn't treat her as less than she is merely because she's a woman, which would have been the easy choice given the book's setting. Specifically, I'm thinking about the big battle at the end. There's a point where Yelena is fighting someone, and she tells Valek to go and find Mogkan, the big bad magician they're ultimately fighting, and Valek actually goes. He doesn't stick around and try to help Yelena when she told him to go. He knows that she's capabl, and also what's at stake if he doesn't do as she says. Then, Yelena even ends up saving Valek from exhaustion and defeat when she finds him fighting Mogkan in the corridor. It was just so nice to see not a helpless female—or one who's treated that way regardless of her actual skill set—in a fantasy book. Usually when women are not treated helplessly, it's because they act very hard and are longtime soldiers or have a background in battle or whatnot. But Yelena was vulnerable, even weak at times, and still treated with respect and trust.
I immediately went and read the second book, which I didn't love as much, but I do want to continue on in the series.
I obviously was not in alignment with the ladies in this Hangout, because neither Kiala nor Bonnie loved it. I actually had no problem with the lack of sexy times, although I can understand their opinion on that because that's one of the basic features of the book club. But that particular feature—or lack thereof—spurred a conversation about what constituted "Vaginal Fantasy," so the ladies talked about that a bit. I don't know that I necessarily agree with their definition of what the books need to be (not that my opinion matters, because I didn't start the club), and I don't think that they've necessarily kept to this particular definition, but it was interesting. I actually disagreed with Bonnie about the Commander being trans and focusing more on that; I liked that it wasn't overblown and focused on, that it was just treated as a normal thing (as it is). And I agree with Veronica about the steamy scene in the dungeon when they think they're about to die.