I picked up Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder, before boarding a transatlantic flight from Ireland to California. I wanted something engrossing and different, a story that would capture my attention through all matter of delays, boredom, and turbulence. Luckily, I chose wisely; I could barely put Poison Study down and finished it within hours of landing.
Poison Study follows the story of Yelena, a young woman who has been languishing in the dungeons of a castle awaiting death for murdering a wealthy nobleman’s son. There is no sugar coating in the descriptions here, no writing desk romantically lit in a windowed cell, or kind guards. Yelena is on the brink of madness due to nearly a year of imprisonment in squalid conditions, when she is pulled out of this nightmare and in to another one, and offered the chance to become the poison taster for the Commander, the military leader of the realm.
She accepts, but the dangers surrounding her past continue to haunt her new life. Part mystery, part thriller, part fantasy, part romance, Yelena’s story is complicated and moving. She’s treated like a pariah in the castle after becoming the poison taster, because of her past as a convicted murderer. No one is aware of Yelena’s troubled past, the traumas she suffered that led her down this path, or her burgeoning magical abilities that are flaring up, and attracting unwanted attention.
The land Yelena lives in is dark and riddled with danger. Snyder’s gritty world building took me off guard with how consuming it was, with its provocative history and layered characters. It felt like a mash up of The Hunger Games, Snow White & the Huntsman and Daughter of Smoke and Bone.
We have to be patient with Yelena as she lets us in on her secrets, one-by-one, and slowly rebuilds her confidence. When it is revealed that Yelena is a survivor of rape, she refuses to succumb to the burden of trauma and shame, and instead fights to establish her sense of self in a world where it seems she has had few choices. I appreciated Snyder’s approach to articulating Yelena’s journey as a survivor, it was nuanced and real, and not without challenges along the way. Above all, this is a story about trust, what happens when it is broken, how to build it with others, and how to develop a trust in your own instincts.