by Maria V. Snyder
Luna, 2005, ISBN 0-373-80230-7
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
Those who remember Laser Books may tremble at the news that Harlequin has started a fantasy imprint, but this book definitely doesn’t justify those fears.
In a background that hovers on the edge between mediaeval and early modern, a young woman is sitting in a prison cell awaiting execution for murder. Yelena is dragged out of her cell, and taken to an interview with the country’s spymaster. He offers her a choice: immediate execution, or a job as the food taster for the Commander of Ixia—the military dictator. When she accepts the job the spymaster, Valek, feeds her a poison which will cause agonizing death in two days if she doesn’t get the antidote every morning.
From this point on, of course, Yelena’s life gets really complicated. Valek is teaching her to recognize as wide a range of poisons as possible, so that in addition to dying in the Commander’s place, she can also identify the poison before she dies and thus help him identify the would-be assassin. She has to dodge the revenge attempts of General Brazell, the father of the man she killed (in self-defense, of course.) And she is rather inconveniently developing magical powers which she can’t control—and which are another capital offense under Ixia’s mostly fair but extremely harsh Code of Behavior. All this is before the real plot complications start.
It’s mostly very well done, especially characters; even the several sets of villains turn out to have solid, plausible motivations, and the plot hangs together well in addition to moving along briskly. The weakness here is mostly in the background; Snyder does not convince me that the pre-revolution Kingdom of Ixia had the social infrastructure to support the fully professional military that was essential to the military takeover that produced the country Yelena grew up in and lives in. It’s certainly possible; both Rome and China had professional military forces with not much or possibly no more technological development. Snyder doesn’t show us a place that seems to have had that kind of cultural development though. But it’s a relatively minor complaint about a book that’s good enough overall that I’m prepared to believe that that background might get filled in or fixed in the sequel (Magic Study, scheduled for fall 2006.)