When finding the exact link for my previous, nearly five-year old review of Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study, I forbade myself from reading it over, as I wanted the following experiment to work well.
**For the next three Wednesdays in July, I will be reexamining all three books in Maria V. Snyder’s Study Series, and will be posting links to my previous reviews for all three books. Each retrospective review will be written without reading through any of the reviews to perfect this test, thus allowing readers to see glaring differences in thoughts and reactions to elements of the novels- both past and present.
Also, this post will be your last opportunity to leave your questions for Maria V. Snyder in the comment section below! On July 30th (two weeks from now), a post that contains Maria V. Snyder’s answers to all your questions will be posted.
Retrospective Review; July 16, 2014:
While re-reading the book this time around, the one thing that struck me almost immediately was the clarity of Maria V. Snyder’s language at this point. This is something that even the most experienced of writers wrestle with all throughout their writing careers, But straight from the outset of Poison Study, the prose is clean, sparse, and still relatively detailed. Some of it, though, still feels a bit clunky, in a sense, and I don’t remember the prose feeling so clunky, at times, but I think the relative clunkiness may be just a subjective feeling, having just finished Taste of Darkness-her most recent novel- last week. Seeing as how Poison Study happens to be Maria V. Snyder’s first novel, it is really unfair to compare it with her later novels, which of course will bear more evidence of her growth as a writer. Analogously, her own writing career, could be visualized in a sense, as being much like one of Yelena’s tense, though exhilarating tight-rope routines, meaning that Maria V. Snyder struggles with each book to write prose that is more lucid, more fluid, in a way where it becomes less viscous and suddenly becomes so organic, as to make the reader completely forget about the tactile, logical barriers that separate ourselves from fully believing that this entirely separate universe of the story is a real alternative dimension of sorts.
Yet from the beginning of Poison Study or her writing career, Maria V. Snyder has always had this knack to make us feel that the world of the territory of Ixia, and its neighboring magic territories, holds some semblance of reality in the minds of the reader. While reading this novel a second time, I felt much more keenly focused on the interesting notes of nuances about the actual semi-socialistic government that rules over Ixia, which has divided the land into various military zones. I believe five years ago, I felt much more concentrated on Yelena’s own past history, and fixated almost entirely on her own subjective experience of being fleetingly held as a prisoner, bound to be executed, then giving a bit of a pardon, by being assigned to the dangerous job or assignation of being the commander’s new taste taster. I thought it was interesting to note just how morally ambiguous the militaristic socialist government itself that has planted itself in Ixia is described through the pages of the novel. Yelena offers a very technical description of how the government operates, but her experiences with the one rather distrustful commander that she was adopted by and his sociopathic, even sadistic son is where we are given a bit more complex feelings, overall, about Yelena’s feelings about the ethicality of the government.
Even more interesting, both her and Valek, through their carefully developed relationship of sorts (both their business relationship and budding romantic relationship) shed more unambiguous light on the morality of the government they dwell in. For example, the one thing I found interesting was the fact that Valek’s main job, involved killing young magicians, endowed with some connection with the overhanging magical fabric that covers the whole fantasy world of this world. Yelena is rather disturbed by this, and I nearly forgot just how morally complex the character of Valek is. When recalling the books, I was always envisaging him as mostly a bit more of a generalized hero character, with a few morally questionable proclivities towards use of violence for certain actions that are not prescriptively moral actions or deeds. And, I think readers can get so enamored with the blossoming romance, and eventual consummation of Yelena and Valek’s relationship, to really forget entirely just how not so clearly good or moralistic that this character is.
Now, I see this as one of the things that attracts readers to Maria V. Snyder’s series because she shapes her characters in a more George R.R. Martin fashion, in that none of her characters are clear moral paragons in a sense. They all exist in the template of a world that is structurally a bit more utilitarian and pragmatic, much like our own real world, when we take away the pretenses of religious or ideological objectives. Yet, the language all throughout is so deceptively clear and concise that reader might mistake this novel for somehow being less complicated than the real depth that lies below a very entertaining, deeply engrossing surface story of one woman’s very dynamical story of growth into a more versatilely strong character, who is neither just a poison-taster or skillful acrobat. She becomes a warrior, a very resourceful person, and above all, very crafty person. This was the book that really displays Maria V. Snyder’s great skills, in developing female characters, who are not strong, and courageous by default. Rather, the situations that they are unwantedly plunged into, allows them the chance to either weaken themselves as characters, and become completely despondent. But, Yelena always makes the choice to defy the brooding thoughts of her mind, and she never lays her agency, her identity down (her life in a sense) to become a martyr for any cause. She always chooses the more difficult, even statistically absurd choice of overcoming various barriers or forces, in again a purely pragmatic/situational ethic way, that reflects the fact that she is a character that never becomes subdued by the wiles of her own chastening subconscious that might have led her just to throw her gumption away, and instead have chosen to die from the beginning of the story.
As such, this story still carries a strong, even salient message of choosing life versus death, whenever dangerous scenarios that present these choices appear at some metaphorical fork-in-the-road in our lives. Yelena, at the age of twenty, is also a story of maturing, not just as a woman, but as a human being, that needs to accept that the moral order of the world she lives in is not a structurally linear world, but is a world propounded by paradoxical moral ideas and utilitarian decisions. This story is sorta of a subversion of the typical hero story, which always held an undercurrent of clear, moral perspective that would allegorically reflect a more religious or ideological ethos. Rather, the ethos of this novel is again, much more grounded in humanist thinking, it is concerning the world that these characters inhabit in the now. In the future books, there will be metaphysical forces, but these things comfortably coexist in a world that is much more humanist and the characters are more motivated by purely pragmatic, rationalistic things, above just religious thinking. Even in the Healer Trilogy, the one country that is seeped in religious modes of thought, still come across as making most of their decisions in a utilitarian fashion. Poison Study and all Maria V. Snyder’s novels are post-modern novels, by nature, meaning they’re written with the same line of thought, as a George R.R. Martin novel, meaning there’s no overarching, even higher moral dimension in the novel. This is a rational novel, in a world where all the characters, including Yelena herself, are not always clearly moral or ethical by any structured, predictable sense of those words.
Reading Poison Study was a deeply enjoyable experience, as this book actually carries more depth than I remember. After five years, it still holds up to more mature eyes, and the novel carries far more nuance than I recalled. Yes, some of the writing itself can feel a bit clumsy, especially when unfairly compared to her later books. But, this shows that Maria V. Snyder continues to further refine her writing, without forsaking any of the moral depth that I think is the real reason people flock to her books. It’s a pity that this novel sometimes gets lazily pinned a “romantic novel,” or a novel only geared towards women. That is ridiculous, as this novel can be enjoyed really by anyone yearning for an action-packed novel with tons of political intrigue and very morally complicated characters that always elude our predictable perceptions of them. So really, this novel is recommended for anyone, and more guys should really be reading these books, as they’d see that novels that happen to feature women as the lead roles does not somehow mean that the novel is automatically frivolous or less meaningful than fantasy novels, written by men.