Poison Study

I just read a couple of books by Maria V. Snyder called Poison Study and Magic Study. I don’t know that I have ever read a fantasy novel set in an early industrial revolution time frame with a moderately successful communist military government before. Especially one that neither preached communism nor villified it, but showed the reasons the persons involved created it and the limitations and benefits of it. That was fascinating, no less because the second book compared that government with an early version of democracy and a tribal society.

But even more interesting are the two major female characters. The protagonist, Yelena, is a woman. She is neither usual or unusual as a woman in her culture; the military oligarchy (if you can believe this) has equalized women with men and jobs and positions are based on ability and talent discovered by teachers in the mandatory schooling. Yelena is, however, unusual as an individual who has murdered the son of a general, someone who would seem to be her benefactor, and who has lived to tell about it. Taking the life of another person under the military Code of Behavior is always punishable by death even in cases of self defense, and so Yelena lives under a sentence of death.

In the first book she is offered reprieve as the food taster for Commander Ambrose (the highest official in her country), and her story comes out only in bits and pieces. Given a setting in just barely pre-industrial revolution and post-monarchy, the “food taster” checks for poison in the Commander’s food, an (eventual) death sentence in itself. We soon realize that Yelena committed murder under what any reasonable person would consider desperately justifiable circumstances, but she is not a whiner. She knows the law, and submits calmly to her fate – the torture she received as a teenager has been relieved by the murder of her torturer, and at first she is resigned to the consequences of her relative freedom. As she grows accustomed to her limited freedom, Yelena starts making plans to escape eventual death, making friends, learning to fight, and eventually discovering her own magical powers.

Yelena is an original and kick-ass heroine, and I loved her even more in the second book, Magic Study, but she’s actually not the most interesting female character in the book.

[Spoilers for Poison Study follow]

Maria Snyder has created the only serious transsexual character I remember reading in a fantasy novel. Remember Commander Ambrose? And you thought he was a man, right? Well so does everyone else in Ixia. Commander Ambrose has lived as a man for years, but was born female, into a feudalistic monarchy that relegated noble women to parties, embroidery, and marriage. Feeling her gender to be incorrect, the young noble lady proved to herself that she was supposed to be a man by completing a feat of hunting no one had ever been able to do before (killing a snow cat) and then took a male identity and led a revolution. Now he lives as a man, the successful head of a military oligarchy, administrating a country with uncompromising, merciless law but strict justice, where everyone works and everyone eats. Unlike other fantasy stories where a woman must masquerade as a man to do what she wants to do, Commander Ambrose actually believes that his correct gender identity is as a man. I found it fascinating that Commander Ambrose could be expressed as a whole person with his own feelings about his gender identity. The author doesn’t seem to have a bone to pick, and there’s no aha! moment where it’s vital that the Commander be a woman-masquerading-as-a-man. S/he just is who he is, for his own reasons. You can have your own philosophical beliefs about transsexuals or communism; the book doesn’t preach. It just tells a story with an interesting setting and believable characters.


  1. says

    Firebird – Thanks so much for the great review! I’m glad you enjoyed the world and characters, and I enjoyed reading your comments on Yelena and the Commander.

    Maria V.

  2. Pat Mathews says

    On the strength of your review, I went out and bought “Poison Study” (Magic Study was not on the shelf.) I posted a “ya gotta read this!” review to the Bujold list because the flavor of the book , the world, and the characters is so much like Lois’ Barrayar (on a different timeline with a different history and with magic.)

    Yelena’s struggles with who to trust and who not to are real without spiraling into the paranoid sensibility of a lot of thrillers, which is a real feat, especially with everyone but the baddies being real, complex characters.

    My term for the Ixian regime, BTW, is “Lawful Totalitarian”.

  3. Firebird says

    Good term! I’m glad you liked it, and I’m sure Ms. Snyder will appreciate it. :-)

    I loved the Bujold books also! I’ve read Palladin of Souls and the second one (whatever the name was, not as cool as the first title, but the book was good, LOL) What forum is that?

    P.S. We are talking about Lois McMasters Bujold, and her female heroine (in the second book) was lovely as well, with a fascinating religion and world.

  4. says

    My observation regarding the government was not so much that it was communistic (socialistic economics but not at all a proletariat- or even party-run government) but that it was a strict meritocracy. Fits well with The Commander’s attitude: prove that you can do what you want to do and you can do it.

    The government isn’t completely run by the military at the start of the book (just a handful of years after a military coup) and seems likely to be less so over time (as non-military secretaries and functionaries are gaining in power), but the meritocracy is ingrained and the political organization is military (strictly defined areas of control nested within one another and never overlapping). This look to me like The Commander’s ordered, focused mind and focus on each person being as good at what they do as possible, both central to his gender identity.

    Also, Ixia’s government is a reactionary response to a decadent aristocracy and that aristocracy presumably arose out of a culture similar to the neighboring one, which is a collection of tribes, several matriarchal or including gender equality, and is now experimenting with democracy as a way to balance their near-magocracy (which can claim to be a meritocracy, although not everyone would agree).

    The question of whether The Commander is transsexual, intersex, two people, or what is a good one (and actively discussed around the net). A fun fantasy/romance with lots of action that gets people discussion government, economics, cultural evolution, and gender identity is a fabulous find.

    Great stuff. Complex but doesn’t weigh down the narrative or the character development.


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