Barely toxic

by Wardog

Wardog reviews Maria V. Synder's Poison Study.
Poison Study is basically girly-fantasy. It has a gold and purple cover with a hot, well-armed chick on it, which should tell you all you need to know. It weighs in at a feather-like 400 pages and falls somewhere between romance and fantasy, not quite succeeding at either. There are some interesting ideas to be found within but it doesn't quite live up to its potential.

The book opens with the heroine, Yelena, dragged from the dungeon in which she has spent the past year and offered a choice: she can either go the gallows or she can become a food-taster. She goes for Option B and is soon drawn into the usual web of political and personal intrigue. The book is set in Ixia, which is best described as Generic Fantasylandia meets Brave New World. After suffering beneath the yoke of that fantasy staple, a decadent feudal monarchy, for years untold, there was some manner of military coup led by the mysterious Commander and his cold-eyed, ferociously loyal, assassin-come-spymaster, soon-to-be-romantic-interest, Valek. The consequence of which appears to have been the establishment of a military oligarchy in which all citizens are allocated to a profession at the age of 12 and wander around in different coloured uniforms denoting said profession. In some respects, it's a genuinely interesting setting. Or it would be if it made any fucking sense.

Information on the world itself is actually rather sparse, which is the sort of thing that would normally win my approval because I hate the excruciating amount of irrelevant detail that tends to get dumped upon the reader's long-suffering brow in the name of world-building. However - and please set your irony detector to mute - this book could really have done with some. I found myself asking the sort of fussy questions that only arise when it occurs to you the author doesn't really know the answer herself. For example, I couldn't even decide how I was supposed to feel about the new government.

Yes, it emerged as a response to a cruel and corrupt monarchy but the new world is essentially - in my view - a dystopia, no matter how fair and compassionate the Commander of it happens to be in person. I mean, the world is divided into numbered military districts for God's sake. And the second most powerful man in the government is an assassin. There's also this weird and unspecified Code of Behaviour, from which nobody is allowed to deviate. Killing someone warrants the death penalty, regardless of the surrounding circumstances. Yet the only character who ever voices a critical opinion later turns traitor, thus invalidating himself as someone whose judgement the reader can trust or rely upon. There is also somebody vaguely rebelling in a pub somewhere but she is never really presented as a threat since Valek knew about her all along anyway. It's not even as if the new regime has been so long established that everyone has grown inured to its ways; I simply can't believe that the entire populace has settled down meekly into their colour-coded uniforms. Also the approach to justice is just batshit nuts. Surely a society cannot function upon something so utterly inflexible that even the Commander who set it up cannot moderate it.

Niggles of this nature persist throughout the book, almost to the extent that I was irritated more consistently than I was entertained. Yelena, being a heroine, is naturally full to the brim with all the usual virtues. She's not as annoying as Locke Lamora but she's damn close. It's not that she's perfect, she's just rather generic. Her tenacity and competence are, of course, to be appreciated in a genre full of women who faint and stab themselves in the foot but I didn't find anything particularly to draw me to her. The hero, similarly, comes stuffed with all the manly virtues, including ones like arrogance and severity, which women are supposed to find attractive but despite being almost constantly aware that I was meant to be attracted to him, I just wasn't. Even his protestation of love is rather lukewarm:
"Yelena, you've driven me crazy. You've caused me considerable trouble and I've contemplated ending your life twice since I've known you." Valek's warm breath in my ear sent a shiver down my spine. "But you've slipped under my skin, invaded my blood and seized my heart."

"That sounds more like a poison than a person," was all I could say. His confession had both shocked and thrilled me.

"Exactly," Valek replied. "You have poisoned me."

It may be thematically apt but it's not setting my pulse racing. It also doesn't help that he's often a completely rubbish spymaster - his main skill set seeming to be centred on keeping the heroine alive - and very occasionally he sounds like he's about twelve:
"Go ahead; share your ideas with Rand. Your buddy; your best friend. You're just like him." Icy sarcasm spiked Valek's words.

In fact, the more I think about it the more I realise that the reason I raced through this book at the speed I did was because I was essentially on tenterhooks waiting for somebody to work out the blatantly obvious plot. It wasn't an entirely pleasant experience. This is not to the say that the book is entirely without surprises - there is one which is very much worth it but only because it's so wildly off centre that you can't help but be intrigued by it.

I shouldn't be too harsh on Poison Study (hmm...bit late for that) because it's a first novel and it's not an unenjoyable experience. It's genuinely quite original in places - although it doesn't always work - but it tends to pull its moral punches in a rather disappointing fashion. I quite liked the fact the heroine is a murderer, but it turns out she was driven to it, not out of hatred or fear or vengeance (all of which I would thoroughly have supported given how horrendously she was treated) but out of a selfless desperation to save those she loved from her own fate. Similarly, Valek is presented as a cold, calculating killer which is almost cool except that he's being compassionate on the sly. I was also quite intrigued by the food-taster plot line (which lasts for all of thirty pages in any real sense) but since the heroine has come into ownership of her previously untapped magical powers it looks like the sequel, Magic Study, is going to offer little novelty to the genre and I probably won't bother with it.

And now introducing: Arthur's Fantasy Rape Watch
(because he's too sensitive to actually do it, but not me, no)

Actual rapes: 1 (of the heroine)
Prowling sexual sadists: 1 (interested in the heroine)
Magical Mind Rapes: 1 (not the heroine, surprisingly)
Number of times heroine threatened with rape: at least 6, possibly more (usually by guards)
Number of consensual sexual encounters involving the heroine: 2 (implied)
Number of times consensual sexual encounter occurs immediately after the heroine vomited: 1 (there's really no accounting for taste)
Number of men raped: 0

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Comments (go to latest)
empink at 23:55 on 2007-11-21
LOfreakingL. There need to be more fantasy rape watches!
empink at 23:55 on 2007-11-21
And really, if the book was that generic, than I'll just trust your judgement and pooh-pooh it ;)
Arthur B at 02:41 on 2007-11-22
We should do a Ferretbrain roundtable of Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series. (It'd have to be a roundtable, because no one person deserves to be lumbered with reading the entire series.) The "Fantasy Rape Watch" segment would be the longest part of the review.
Wardog at 10:00 on 2007-11-22
Arthur's been talking about the Fantasy Rape Watch for a while but I hadn't realised just how weirdly illuminating it actually is. I think we should definitely make it a feature, despite the fact it's utterly tasteless and, consequently, kinda funny.

I was faintly annoyed, actually, by how easily the heroine shrugs of her traumatic rape experience. I mean, coming to terms with her past is a big part of the book but regardless she still leaps happily into bed with Valek, pausing for barely a moment to celebrate the fact that she can still do despite what happened to her. Because love heals everything, folks.

I think perhaps I've been too harsh on it - it does have genuinely fun stuff in there but the lack of world-coherence really really annoyed me. Which is ironic considering that's usually the sort of thing I moan about.
Arthur B at 11:54 on 2007-11-22
Love heals everything... including, apparently, the guy you supposedly love talking to you as if you're a moron throughout half the book, if the quotes you chose are anything to go by.
Wardog at 15:57 on 2007-11-22
Well, I know I for one have dated such people =P

By the way, how many books is the Sword of Truth? And can we buy in bulk for the nearest charity shop?
Arthur B at 17:39 on 2007-11-22
It's 11 books long, 12 if you include the slim prequel novella. They frequently show up in charity shops, in my experience. On the other hand, I feel it's unlikely we'll be able to top this summary of all the delicious crazy in the books. Make sure to follow the links to the forum thread with all the quotes direct from the books. The scene where the hero nobly kicks a nasty 8-year-old girl in the face really hard (hoping that she'll die and therefore be saved from growing up to become a nasty 18-year-old girl) is... well, it's really something.
Wardog at 14:01 on 2007-11-26
You know ... let's ... not ... do this.

Hilarious summary although it made me cringe. I can't believe people are allowed to write such books (not becuase I'm shocked at the content, just because they're blatantly *bad*) and get paid for it. And presumably read by people.
valse de la lune at 12:06 on 2012-04-04
I read through the whole trilogy. You're right, it gets worse; the setting and plot get weaker as you go along, and there's a serial murderer/rapist who goes around killing and raping something like a dozen girls in the second book, and in the last book it's revealed he did this because his "favorite uncle held him down and sodomized him" when he was a kid.

What is it with this trilogy and rape.
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