Review: the Study Trilogy by Maria V. Snyder

This isn’t YA. I just want to get that out of the way in case the YA label turns anyone away from these books. Don’t miss out because publishers slap the YA sticker on every fantasy book with a young female protagonist. But if you like YA, then by all means read away.

This is a rare occasion where I like a book series because almost everything about it works for me, but–because there’s always a but–I can’t pinpoint why. There are certain things in these books that I like in the context of the whole series, but strangely they are the very same things that bothered me to no end in other books and series in the past. Don’t know why I like them here, so credit to Maria Snyder’s story weaving skills.

And her writing is quite good, and it’s the kind of writing that’s easy to lose yourself in. Her prose is uncomplicated and comes off effortless. She spins a tale that’s quite hard to put down once you pick up the first book; you could read for hours and not notice how much time has passed. There isn’t one definitive thing about these books that stand out, to me; it’s the culmination of competent storytelling, interesting plot and character development, an understanding of dark subject matter, and a great world of magic that gradually draw you in. Ixia, where Yelena’s story starts, is cold, gloomy, and encased in mystery and darkness. Sitia, in contrast, is warm, bright, and bursting with life and magic. It’s a world you’d want to visit, and Yelena’s adventures are adventures you’d want to go on.

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* * * *  spoilers * * * *

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date Read: March 13 to 15, 2015
Recommended by: Gergana

Poisoned, pursued and living with a psychopath. Not what I would consider the good life. Death has its perks.

Yelena, an orphaned teenage girl, is imprisoned for (justified) murder. She spends a year locked in the Commander’s fetid dungeon awaiting execution when Valek, the chief of security and master assassin, offers her a deal. Be the Commander’s new food taster or go to the gallows. She chooses to live and begins training in the art of detecting poisons. The training is deadly for the food taster has to be familiar with most often used poisons. Yelena learns how to detect them by their scents and flavors just from a small bite of food. Her keen senses and, unbeknownst to her, subtle magical abilities helped her through this process.

As she settles into her new job, she finds castle life is not without peculiar difficulties. One being paid assassins coming after her on the orders of General Brazell, the father of the creep she killed. Another thing is her lack of social skills, which makes it difficult for the castle inhabitants to warm up to her. But during the course of book, she does make friends, Valek being one of them. She also learns how to cope and live with her past while slowly healing those wounds, all the while unraveling an attempted coup and the Commander’s true identity. A lot more happens of course, but you know, major spoilers.

What surprised me most about this book is the Commander. What an interesting, yet pleasant surprise. I’m glad it’s well executed. Once you know what it is, it explains so many things about his personality that went into creating the new reformed Ixian society. There’s a lot I find interesting about a society set up this way; it goes against what I know from actual history, that there is a positive side to dystopian dictatorship. Never thought I’d say that, but Maria Snyder has convinced me to see Ixia as such a place, a successful functional dystopian society.

Another thing that surprised me is Yelena’s characterization–it’s believable. She doesn’t suffer from the usual high fantasy tropes that plague female protagonists. As a character who’s suffered a number of violent things done to her, she maintains a resilience that allow her to overcome trauma. She also has a stubborn, rational streak that guides her on. I like that she prioritizes her own survival when faced with difficult situations. The story opens with Yelena as a broken shell of a person sitting in prison awaiting execution, and then she’s given the chance to live, so she seizes it and uses it. And she grows stronger with each setback and challenge thrown her way. Along the way, she regains control of her life and learns to trust again. She even makes a few friends.

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date Read: March 16 to 18, 2015

“Living is a risk,’ I snapped at him. ‘Every decision, every interaction, every step, every time you get out of bed in the morning, you take a risk. To survive is to know you’re taking that risk and to not get out of bed clutching illusions of safety.”

[…]

“Your fear remains strong. You are not ready to face your story, preferring instead to surround yourself with knots. Someday, they will strangle you.”

Yelena is expelled from Ixia once it’s known that she has magic. Because of the Commander’s unique circumstance, he doesn’t allow people with magical abilities to live in Ixia. Yelena doesn’t just have magical abilities though; she’s a gifted magician with many hidden talents and strengths, which many more people will come to see as a threat. This book takes Yelena back home to her family’s land in southern Sitia, where she had been kidnapped from 14 years ago. She doesn’t recall anything about her childhood or her even own parents. Her homecoming is rather awkward since many extended family members see her as a spy for Ixia, and her brother Leif shares their doubts. He doesn’t believe she is actually his sister, but an impostor sent by the Commander. They clash several times before coming to terms with their anger and disrupted childhoods, and reaching a mutual understanding.

Yelena has many issues from her past to work through, which she does throughout the book, with the help of a spirit guide who calls himself Moon Man and her intuitive horse Kiki. This book differs from Poison Study in that it’s more fun and action-packed. Yelena gets to go to magic school and then travel to far-off places, always while in the pursuit of something to save someone from immediate danger. On these journeys, she gets to experience Sitia as if for the first time and learns what it means to be a Sitian. Of the three books, this one is my favorite and the one I’m most likely to reread. Like the previous, this book is also fraught with danger for Yelena, as well as all of Sitia, because a serial killer on the loose. He hunts teenage girls with magical abilities so he could absorb their powers. It’s quite a gruesome ordeal and brings back Yelena’s memories of living under Brazell’s roof.

Yelena comes full circle in this book, and her journey would have ended here if not for the slight cliffhanger at the end. I wouldn’t have minded if the story ended here

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Rating: ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Date Read: March 18 to 20, 2015

Interesting how life goes on in spite of itself.

I can’t really say anything without giving the whole book away, so I will have to settle for…the ending felt rushed. This book picks up where the previous left off, with everyone in the Keep on the hunt for a fugitive. Yelena is plagued by a fiery presence that stalks her whenever she comes in contact with fire, and the two of them battle back and forth throughout the book. Yelena comes to terms with and accepts her role as soulfinder, but it takes a long while for her to get to this point. Meanwhile, chaos and terror loom over the people of Sitia.

There should have been more to the final battle. While Maria Snyder did wrap up each story arc, she didn’t do it to the best of her ability; I know she could have done better. The first half of the book is similar in tone to Magic Study, and the last half is a wild ride. One of my favorite characters, the character I think holds these last two books together, dies, and that’s why I’m still brooding over the ending.

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