Poison Study, Magic Study, Fire Study
Once in a while, a fantasy trilogy comes along that is completely and totally engrossing, one you can’t put down or stop thinking about.
The Study series, by Maria V. Snyder, is one of those.
Immensely rich in both world- and character-building, it follows Yelena, a resident of Ixia who is, when we first meet her, in prison for murdering a Baron’s son. She doesn’t deny the murder — he more than deserved it, as we eventually find out — but is given a choice: instant death, or becoming the Commander’s food taster. She accepts the latter, which changes everything. She manages to survive the training by the Commander’s chief of security and top assassin, Valek. And, as a result, she becomes exposed to many inside plots that she otherwise wouldn’t have been privy to. In the first book an interesting subplot — the fact that Yelena has magic, which is forbidden in Ixia, but accepted in Sitia, the country to the south — becomes the focus of the next two books.
While all three books are enjoyable, the first one is the most rewarding. Combining political intrigue — the Commander is a chief of a military dictatorship, and of course there will be rebellion — with an immense chemistry between Valek and Yelena that only has its payoff in the final pages, it is laden with tension. While the next two in the series ramp up the political side — capturing a serial killer in Magic Study, and thwarting a coup in Fire Study — they lack the chemistry and tension that makes Poison Study so enjoyable. It also doesn’t help that the most engaging character, Valek, plays a more minor role in the second and third books.
That said, Yelena is an admirable character in her own right. She’s a headstrong woman, who is not afraid to do things, even if it means risking her life (or reputation). She is not patient or cautious, but rather instinctive and assertive, which works well for the pacing of the novels. We would much rather have Yelena rushing off into some dangerous situation than her sitting around waiting for everyone to tell her what to do. And there are many minor characters to love (and hate) throughout the series. That there are so many characters to enjoy is both one of the strengths of the series as well as one of the weaknesses; sometimes, characters are shuffled off without any further adieu, which, while it doesn’t distract from the overall enjoyment, can be a bit irritating.
Even with its flaws, it’s an excellent fantasy series. Highly recommended.
Rated: Moderate — lots of off-screen sex, though nothing graphic, and some very uncomfortable torture situations