Monday, 24 June 2013

Book Review: The Study Series

Title: Poison Study, Magic Study and Fire Study
Author: Maria V Snyder
Year Published: 2005-2008
Genre: Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult

Yelena is a convicted murderer. On the day of her execution, she is given a choice: take the noose or become food taster for the Commander of Ixia. Naturally, she chooses the latter. At the palace, she is trained to taste for poisons by Valek, the Commander’s loyal and mysterious Chief of Security. To prevent Yelena’s escape, Valek poisons her with Butterfly’s Dust – from then on, she must return to him for a daily dose of the antidote or else face a painful death as the Butterfly’s Dust takes effect.

So begins Poison Study, the first book in Maria V Snyder’s Study Series (also known as the Yelena Zaltana Novels). It’s an interesting premise, rife with potential. As Yelena adjusts to her new life, she meets General Brazell, father of the man she killed, and a magician from the neighbouring country of Sitia, who senses Yelena’s magic – magic being outlawed in Ixia. How can she stay safe? Who can she trust? There’s a lot of tension in this novel, which gives it an enjoyable, exciting sort of mood.

Still, the lack of poisons in a book called Poison Study is disappointing. There is only a brief period of poison taster training before the narrative drifts into Yelena learning to fight, Yelena being suspicious of General Brazell and Yelena taking baths. There isn’t much “plot”; the action, as it is, is mostly character-driven. That brings me to Yelena herself. She’s an Action Girl, and I’ll admit I didn’t like her at first – I felt she had a modern, misplaced sense of entitlement, which was bold considering she’s easily replaceable. However, over time, I came to appreciate her good qualities – she’s strong, frank, hard-working and wants to help people.

One of the best parts of the book is the romance. It’s not a surprise that Valek becomes a love interest, and the captor/captive dynamic makes it a bit more interesting. Thankfully, there’s no insta-love, so it was good to see their relationship actually develop. Valek himself is painted as a devoted and manly badass, and despite his curly shoulder-length hair (wat), he was probably my favourite character and I’m sure many of you will swoon for him (even though he's a pretty shady guy when you think about it).

While Poison Study works as a standalone, its sequels, Magic Study and Fire Study do not. The plot from Magic Study doesn’t even finish, meaning you’ll have to read Fire Study for closure. Spoiler alert: at the end of Poison Study, Yelena lives. She decides to go to Sitia to learn to control her magic. Like its predecessor, both Magic Study and Fire Study lack actual study of magic or fire. Instead, the books are mostly about how Yelena hunts down an evil magician who rapes, tortures and murders girls to steal their magic.

Like many others, I felt that the series weakened with each book. The key issue is the matter of the plot. While the first book deals with Yelena’s struggle to survive, the next two have her playing detective, justice-meter and all-round hero, since no one at all competent exists in her world other than Valek. Yelena’s rape and torture in Book #1 are harrowing, formative events. In Books #2 and #3, rape and torture are used almost gratuitously as drama-adding plot devices. The events of Book #3 are also especially repetitive, with a lot of people travelling around, getting captured and stabbing or being stabbed with the paralysing substance Curare. What makes it worse is how – perhaps due to a lack of personal stakes for Yelena – the antagonist feels like a Monster of the Week, rather than a Big Bad, even though their storyline stretches across two books. Also, while some characters are likeable (eg. Ari and Janco), others are annoyingly one-dimensional (Roze) and one character is outright spin-off bait (Opal Cowan, now featured in The Glass Series).

I had hoped that the world would be built up a bit more, since there are so many interesting concepts at play. It’s not often you read a fantasy set in a socialist military dictatorship like Ixia, but other than a bunch of colour-coded uniforms, you don’t get much exploration of the way it works. The capitalist democracy(?) Sitia, on the other hand, gets a bit more depth in terms of the plains nomads Sandseed clan and jungle tree-dwelling Zaltana clan – but that’s only in terms of their lifestyle, so to speak. You don’t really see how the Sitian government works; we only know there is a Council and that it takes them a long time to make decisions. The only virtue of this, according to Yelena, is how it means that no one person shoulders the blame for mistakes. Also, beggars apparently do not exist in Ixia. Mmm… okay then. It’s a bit too simplistic for my liking, but what can you do?

I think another reason why the sequels aren't as loved is because there is less Valek. Valek and Yelena's romance is one of the highlights of Poison Study and there’s less of that in the sequels. Their relationship also doesn’t seem to develop beyond the stage of becoming a couple. I would have liked to see Snyder explore how their previous captor/captive relationship colours their current one, or maybe something about how Yelena feels conflicted about Valek being an assassin of magicians (ie. people like her). But no. Instead we have one (1) token fight where she calls him out on his murderous ways and she’s portrayed as being in the wrong. Otherwise, every time they meet, they just banter for a bit before their clothes fall off. FYI, after disrobing, the sex scenes comprise, at most, of a vague paragraph about how Yelena feels Valek inside her and how their souls bond. In other words, these scenes adhere to the Twilight school of sexytimes writing, to give you an indication of what they’re like.

Yelena also falls victim to Mary Sue-itis. Big time. She goes from showing magic potential in Book #1 to gaining more and more super special snowflake abilities with each book. Worse is how she seems to disbelieve all the things people say about her. Beautiful? Me? Powerful? Me? Soulfinder? Me? I rolled my eyes so hard and so frequently they almost got stuck at the back of my head. Yelena also makes decisions that don’t seem to make sense, but of course it works out in the end because of course it does. She flip-flops on matters of trust and she only wants to help people if it’s done her way. However, she’s the only character with actual thoughts, so of course she solves all the problems, no matter how nonsensical she may be. The prime example of dumb that’s stuck with me is how she chooses her horse. So she’s just discovered she can talk to a horse (they think in English, apparently, only without auxiliary verbs and without the word “I”). So... how does she think she should choose a horsey companion? Why, by colour of course! It’s like she’s not even trying. And of course she gets the most special horse there is.

The writing in this series is simple. The style is easy-to-read and conversational and the chapters are short, with a tendency to cliff-hang at the end. It’s also the only reason I see for classifying this book as “Young Adult”, since Yelena is already nineteen years old (and Valek’s in his early thirties) and there’s a lot of dark material here (namely, the brutal rapes, tortures and murders). While it’s the sort of prose that’s easy to gobble up, it also felt lazy in parts. Some things I could forgive for being part of Yelena’s thought processes (such as a garment being called “skirt/pants” and Valek wearing a “sneak suit”), but other words and phrases jarred. The language is modern, with “Mr.” and “occupational hazard” being terms I did not expect to see in this world of swords and horses. The most striking instance of this is when Moon Man exclaims “wah-lah!”, which I can only assume is a bastardised form of the French “voila!”. I literally could not believe it and had to read the sentence a few times before it sank in. One last pet peeve is how Valek takes to calling Yelena “love”, using the word at the end of almost every sentence. Rather than sounding romantic, this just reminds me of kindly old British groundskeepers, because I’ve learned from TV that that’s how they speak, innit, love?

The Study Series starts off well. Poison Study is an easy, addictive read with a tantalising romance and tense mood. However, the sequels are less captivating. Yelena becomes a Sue, the romance stalls and the world isn’t as complex as it needs to be. The main conflict is not uninteresting, but the repetitiveness and dumb are really frustrating and sap the life out of things. To sum, the books aren’t unpleasant, but they’re not particularly great either. Still, the glass magic mentioned toward the end sounds interesting, so I may yet get sucked into reading the author’s next series about Opal.

(Note: newer editions of these books include a map at the start. There is also a sequel series for Yelena in the works.)

Alex’s Rating: 3/5

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