Maria V. Snyder, Luna Books, 2005. (I read 2006 edition). Fantasy. 427 pages.
After being imprisoned for murder in a society that does not accept self defense or accident as reasons for killing someone, Yelena is offered a choice: hang or become the Commander's new food taster. As the Commander's security chief and the leader of the intelligence network of Ixia, Valek undertakes her treacherous training in poisons, tasting and smelling the toxic substances. To ensure that Yelena doesn't run away, Velek gives her Butterfly Dust, a deadly poison that will kill her if she does not receive her daily dose of antidote.
So begins Yelena's life in the castle, never knowing if her next bite of food will be fatal. Baxel, whose son she killed, is plotting to kill her, she exhibits magical powers which she must control because all magicians are summarily put to death, and a rebel plots threatens Ixia and the Commander whose food she is required to taste. Through all of this, Yelena must make choices, for her own actions, whether to trust others, and even whether to trust herself.
I loved reading this book and could hardly put it down - it was recommended to me by two different people when I asked about strong female characters. It is well written and captivating. Yelena is a strong heroine, even if she doesn't always know it herself, but part of her development in the book is weighing the implications of her choices. I liked her strength and passion, and even her lack of confidence at times because they seemed so natural and normal. I really felt her humanity as she constantly weighed the consequences of her choices in impossible situations.
The world that Maria Snyder created was vivid and enjoyable, I really had a sense of it, though the book is written in a straightforward manner and is not flowery at all. Yelena's life is described matter of factly and she accepts her situation without a lot of sentiment, but she lives in a society without a lot of sentiment. This is a society that is streamlined and functional, the Commander having overthrown the opulent and excessive King. For example, people are only trained for the jobs they will perform and wear uniforms to indicate these jobs, people can be reassigned anywhere without choice, and can only travel with permission.
Poison Study also presents some other interesting moral dilemmas, primarily the idea of justice being blind and the circumstances of a crime having no bearing on the punishment. Like many good fantasies, this one presents questions about humanity and encourages us to look at ourselves.
The story is full of intrigue and plot twists, and even some romance. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes fantasy, though some of the content is intense and violent. This is one of those books that blurs the lines between young adult and adult fiction, and there are a couple of scenes in particular that make this book difficult to classify as young adult, though I think that more mature teens as well as adults would both like this book.
There are are two more books in this series, Magic Study and Fire Study. There also appears to be a couple of short side stories, Assassin Study (Study 1.5), Power Study (Study 2.5), and Ice Study (Study 3.5) to go in between the main novels.