Thursday, 6 September 2012

Review: The Study Trilogy by Maria V. Snyder

Minor spoilers for the trilogy as I’m reviewing all three books at once, I have tried to keep them to an absolute minimum.

Book 1: Poison Study
Choose: A quick death…Or slow poison…

About to be executed for murder, Yelena is offered an extraordinary reprieve. She'll eat the best meals, have rooms in the palace—and risk assassination by anyone trying to kill the Commander of Ixia.
And so Yelena chooses to become a food taster. But the chief of security, leaving nothing to chance, deliberately feeds her Butterfly's Dust—and only by appearing for her daily antidote will she delay an agonizing death from the poison.
As Yelena tries to escape her new dilemma, disasters keep mounting. Rebels plot to seize Ixia and Yelena develops magical powers she can't control. Her life is threatened again and choices must be made. But this time the outcomes aren't so clear…
Book 2: Magic Study
With her greatest enemy dead, and on her way to be reunited with the family she'd been stolen from long ago, Yelena should be pleased. But though she has gained her freedom, she can't help feeling isolated in Sitia. Her Ixian background has changed her in many ways—and her newfound friends and relatives don't think it's for the better....
Despite the turmoil, she's eager to start her magic training—especially as she's been given one year to harness her power or be put to death. But her plans take a radical turn when she becomes involved with a plot to reclaim Ixia's throne for a lost prince—and gets entangled in powerful rivalries with her fellow magicians.
If that wasn't bad enough, it appears her brother would love to see her dead. Luckily, Yelena has some old friends to help her with all her new enemies...
Book 3: Fire Study
When word that Yelena is a Soulfinder—able to capture and release souls—spreads like wildfire, people grow uneasy. Already Yelena's unusual abilities and past have set her apart. As the Council debates Yelena's fate, she receives a disturbing message: a plot is rising against her homeland, led by a murderous sorcerer she has defeated before....
Honour sets Yelena on a path that will test the limits of her skills, and the hope of reuniting with her beloved spurs her onward. Her journey is fraught with allies, enemies, lovers and would-be assassins, each of questionable loyalty. Yelena will have but one chance to prove herself—and save the land she holds dear.

I love the Study series by Maria V Snyder, they were my first foray into her writing and they hold a special place in the fantasy corner of my heart (right between Tamora Pierce and Kristin Cashore.) They are one of my favourites to come back to again and again, particularly when I’m feeling rough and need a break from the real world. So a few days ago I went back into Yelena’s world for another trip round.

The first book will always remain my favourite of the series. There’s something about it that just sparks my imagination in a way that the second two books never quite recapture. It could be the fresh new concept and world that we’re being introduced to, or the (relatively) stable environment of the castle complex where the majority of the action takes place, or it could be that this book features the most of Valek that we ever see, and yes ok, I may have a bit of a soft spot for Valek. How did you guess?

Poison brilliantly sets up Yelena as a character, throwing us and her straight in at the deep end with a death or slow death option, and the action never really lets up from there. There are no pre-formed relationships, the reader finds out about the characters at the same time as Yelena, and it’s so much fun trying to work out who is trustworthy and who might be selling information. The world that Snyder sets up is both brutal but complex and a fascinating study. I loved seeing how Ixia worked and the different roles everyone plays within the construct.

Yelena herself is a fascinating character, she’s just that bit older than most YA heroines, so the book can appeal to either end of the spectrum, both adults and older teens. She’s strong and fiery and incredibly determined, but there is also something fundamentally broken about her, and Snyder doesn’t shy away from portraying that and giving Yelena the arc and space to try to come to terms with herself, her situation, and her past.

She’s supported by a fascinating cast of characters, Valek of course being my favourite. He’s a darkly brilliant character, who you never know what he might do or how he might react, with a life and character outside of the bounds of Yelena’s interactions, and I desperately want a study on Valek please. There are so many layers to him, he remains one of my favourite heroes, even though he may not come across as a hero to start with.We also get to meet Ari and Janco who are one of the best double acts ever and remind me in some ways of the Weasley twins, only a little bit more deadly.

It’s a fantastic combination of fantasy and magic with some of the darker elements of humanity mixed in. It never gets to heavy, and never lets up on the rollercoaster ride from start to finish, and leaves the reader desperate to head straight into the next book in the series ‘Magic Study.’ Which is where it then went a bit downhill for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love the series, but books two and three never quite live up to the magic that I found in book one.
Yelena is out in the big wide world, freed from her position as poison taster and off to seek her family and her magical heritage in Sitia I really loved seeing a whole new side to the world and the different mis match of cultures that all coalesce in Sitia in comparison to the straight rigidity of Ixia. They are a contrast in studies and I love seeing more of the two nations over the following two books.

My three biggest problems with Magic Study and Fire Study are firstly, that the character development never seems to be tackled as well as it is in the first book. I never really warmed to Yelen’a parents and her brother Lief and her have so many issues and then suddenly they don’t. There is a passage where they look at the events that shaped their hostility towards each other, but it then felt as though those issues were dropped and never touched on again, which was really disappointing. I felt that their relationship was one of the most fascinating ones, and there were some really solid reasons for dislike between them and I wanted to see them work through those and come out the other side, not to just get a magic fix.

All the other secondary characters it felt like we got a lot of them up to a point and then they would close off and we couldn’t go any deeper. Irys for example would swing from trusting Yelena to cutting her off so quickly it practically gave me whiplash.

Secondly, Yelena adopts a ‘let’s rush headlong into everything and hang the consequences’ attitude. Which yes, works in some situations and really really doesn’t in others. Sometimes I just wanted to shake her for not trusting people or even attempting to reach out to them, because it left her isolated and making increasingly bad decisions. I understood the justification for not trusting others, but it felt like it was taken a little too far on some occasions.

And finally, there really wasn’t enough Valek, and when we did get him, it was usually in situations where there was no hope and then suddenly Valek appears in her mind and helps her out. Now if there had been some sort of bond or magical tether between the two of them or even a vague attempt to make some sense of why this kept happening then I probably wouldn’t have questioned it. However as it was it felt like it was just an easy way out, which was tragic because I wanted more of Valek yes, but not just as a save the day kind of guy. It also felt like he had lost some of his hard battle mentality in the second two books, which again was a bit sad after the pure awesomeness of the first book.

However, yes ok I have a few gripes but they are actually not big ones, it’s just because I’m looking at the three books in one go. I really do love this series, hugely, and it is one of those series I am forever telling people to read. Snyder is a genius at world building, she creates compelling and believable worlds filled with history and backstory and myths and they feel so real as you read. It’s an incredible talent and one that has only grown with each book she’s written.

She creates a host of fantastic characters, from Yelena right the way through to the smallest bit parts. Everyone adds to the story, they all fit seamlessly into the whole, and they all help to create this incredible tale. Because regardless of any gripes I may have, this trilogy really is an incredible feat of storytelling. It remains one of my favourites to come back to time and time again, and Valek and Yelena remain one of my top favourite pairings.

If you’re looking for a new fantasy series to sink your teeth into this comes very highly recommended. If you’re after fantastic world building a compelling plot and engaging characters then again, you’ll strike gold with these. The whole series is fantastic, but Poison study remains my favourite.

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