by Maria V. Snyder
Luna, October 2006, ISBN 0-373-80249-8
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
This is Snyder's excellent follow-up to her solid first novel, Poison Study. Yelena has traveled south with the Sitian Fourth Magician, Irys, and the other surviving Sitian children from General Brazell's "orphanage," and has now arrived at the home she doesn't remember to meet a family who are complete strangers to her. Irys leaves her with her family to get reacquainted, intending to come back and get her in two weeks to take her to the Keep, where she'll be trained in the use and control of her powers.
It's a culture shock for both sides, and while her parents are welcoming, understanding, and patient, othersespecially her brother, Leifare unremittingly hostile. Leif has his own, more specialized, magical talent, the ability to sense the emotional traces of a person's actions. He knows that Yelena has killed, recently and more than once, and he concludes that she's a murderous Ixian spy.
Imagine Yelena's joy when a change in plans means that she and Leif will make the journey to the Keep alone.
It's from this point that Yelena's life starts to get even more interestingin the sense of the old proverbthan it was during her last few years in Ixia. She and Leif are ambushed along the way, by a troop that Leif turns out to be on surprisingly good terms withCahil Ixia, the presumed heir to the throne of Ixia (Valek, we're told, was careless after all the adults were dead, and lost track of this infant) and his men. Even convincing Cahil (who wants this Ixian spy to reveal what she knows about the Commander's security and military dispositions) that his best course is to bring her to the Keep doesn't end her troubles, because the First Magician, Roze, is easily persuaded that she's a spy. She launches an assault on Yelena's mind which would have been wholly against the magicians' ethical code if she weren't a spyand makes two unpleasant discoveries. Yelena isn't a spy, and she is strong enough to successfully defend herself and survive the assault without the damage it would have caused to a weaker mind.
So Yelena settles in at the Keep for her training, with a brother who hates her, a First Magician who too powerful and too close to maturity to be safely trained (for the safety of all magicians, she should be killed instead), and very soon, the hostility of the other older apprentices, who resent the fact that she didn't have to work up from the lower ranks the way they did. All this fun is considerably leavened, though, by the fact that she also makes good friendsIrys, once she returns, one of the final-year apprentices, the Second and Third Magicians, even a somewhat rocky friendship with Cahil, who much to the dismay of both of them, now that he's grudgingly convinced she's not a spy, finds himself her riding instructor. (The Sitian Council lets him and his troop have a home; they haven't committed to supporting Cahil's claims, and he and his men still have to support themselves.)
With all this going on, though, even more interesting is the conflict between the Ixian customs Yelena was raised with, and the Sitian customs she's trying to learn and adapt to. Snyder doesn't do anything as simple as showing one as good and the other as bad. Sitia is in many ways more open, more free, more tolerant of difference, more friendly to trust and mutual cooperation. On the other hand, one of Yelena's new friends is a little beggar boy with no prospects at all in the world, and a real danger of starvation if he can't beg or steal enough to get through the dayand he's extremely bright. In Ixia, his brains and talent would have been identified early, and he'd have assigned to suitable training and be on the fast track to a really good position in life. And while the Sitians are great at collaboration, they're not so good at recognizing when there's not time to consult and collaboratewhen someone just needs to make a decision and act. And when Yelena does that, it makes even her friends doubt and wonder about her intentions. Mind you, sometimes Yelena needs to learn to slow down, consult, and collaborate. And sometimes not; that's what makes this a really difficult learning experience for her.
All of this is extremely well handled, and when Yelena finds herself faced with critical choices on how to respond to the old enemy that's come back to haunt her and threaten her new home, it's a real and painful choice.
(Once small note for people who read my review of Poison StudyI mentioned that the limited background there seemed to be a mediaeval culture that wouldn't have supported the professional army necessary for the events that created the Territory of Ixia, but I allowed for the possibility that more background in the sequel might change that impression. It has; the world of Ixia and Sitia does have an early modern level of development that can and has supported professionalized armies.)