Maybe it's the near-total absence of any modern technology, or perhaps it's nothing more than the simple yearning for something totally different (the "grass is always greener" syndrome)... but whatever the reason, there's this special sort of magic that I often feel when reading something set in the long-ago past--especially if it's a past full of horses and castles. (No, I never once actually wished for a pony as a child... although I wouldn't have minded living in my very own castle for awhile. Of course, the lack of electricity and questionable indoor "plumbing" would have made the whole castle dream fall apart pretty quickly, so... yeah, it's probably for the best that particular wish was never fulfilled.)
A lot of people like to read about yesteryear because they think it evokes a more "innocent" time, but I disagree. After all, there's certainly no shortage of "bad stuff" going on in most historical books; for every gunshot wound, stabbing, bomb, or car chase you read about in a modern setting, you can find a comparable sword fight, beheading, burning at the stake, or chase on horseback in something set in a long-ago era, too. And, a lot of bad stuff has remained unchanged-- things like bare-knuckle brawls, sexual assaults, and abductions have always been a part of life. Evil and meanness have been around since time began.
Still, things often seem a little more interesting in an historical novel, and, until a few years ago, that would have meant one of only a couple things to me--either straight-up historical fiction, or a mystery/suspense story set in the past. Now, though, it might also mean a traditional fantasy novel... something I've only gradually become reacquainted with, of late. And, if I may shamelessly steal from Martha Stewart for a moment, it's "a good thing".
Don't get me wrong... there will never come a time when I don't love modern mysteries and suspenses, a really good spooky-creepy tale, an intelligent legal/medical/forensic thriller, a captivating Urban Fantasy, a much-loved classic (of course), or some other unclassifiable but thought-provoking tale. I'm just sort of... branching out, if you will.
My latest foray into fantasy was actually recommended several months ago by a very good friend, and--with apologies to her for taking forever to finally fish the book out of my TBR stack and read the darn thing--I'm happy to report that it was very good, indeed. So, with that I bring you the 2005 debut of Maria V. Snyder's Poison Study.
Much like my other favorites in this genre, the story itself is a fairly simple one. It centers around a young woman--Yelena--who has been imprisoned for approximately a year, awaiting her own death, after being found guilty of murdering her benefactor. As the day of her demise fast approaches, she's given a reprieve; if she agrees to perform the necessary tasks--learning all she can about various poisons, then putting her life at risk three times every single day thereafter, her life will be spared so that she can take over the, erm, recently-vacated job as food-taster for the country's leader. It's an important--albeit not highly-respected (nor particularly desirable)--position. Faced with an even-less appealing alternative, though, Yelena agrees. The story which follows depicts her learning curve as the newbie food-taster, as well as her fight to gain the respect of those around her. It's also the story of her struggle for survival, as the decision not to execute an accused murderer is a uniformly unpopular one.
There are multiple layers to the story which I can't get into (primarily because it's so much better if the details are allowed to unfold naturally as you read the book), but suffice it to say that Yelena herself is more than she first appears. The same can also be said for her new co-workers and associates, both the ones she counts as enemies and the ones who gradually become her friends.
What I appreciate more than anything else in Poison Study are the many shades of grey with which Snyder paints her story. Not one single character is all good... and only a few are all bad. For the most part, though, we see these characters just as Yelena does, and our perceptions change, along with hers, as situations unfold and actions take on new meanings. (If nothing else, this tale is a valuable exercise in learning not to judge too hastily.)
But what about the magical quality I rhapsodized over earlier? There's plenty of that here, too--although it sometimes takes a back seat to the meat of the story. One thing that bugs me in a lot of period pieces is when characters sound too "hip", but that really isn't the case in this instance (although the language is decidedly modern); here, the use of current vernacular serves to provide a better connection between the characters and the reader--and for me, the combination of extremely-relatable characters and a kind of gritty fairy tale setting works extremely well. So, too, do the politics and human-rights issues which form the heart of the story; their relevance is a pleasant surprise.
Poison Study is a pure fantasy, but it sort of transcends that, too, as it tackles some serious issues and shows some emotional depth. It's a love story wrapped up in a political intrigue enmeshed in a psychological drama which wends its way along a journey of self-actualization... all of it in a vaguely dreamy, mystical place just different enough from our own world to keep the magic alive.
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4 out of 5 mousies