Poison Study, Maria V. Snyder’s 2005 young adult fantasy, opens with an interesting proposition: Yelena, a young woman imprisoned for the murder of her captor, is offered a job in place of an execution. The law of Ixia, a former kingdom turned martial dictatorship, requires that the position of poison taster be offered to the next prisoner to be executed when a death leaves it vacant, and Yelena, for once in her life, is in luck: the last guy just bit it.
By the end of that first volume (spoilers ahead!), Yelena’s fallen in love with the clever, ambitious Valek, an assassin and spy, but with the unfortunate fact of her magic (illegal in Ixia) exposed, she’s forced to flee to the neighboring land of Sitia, where, as it just so happens, the family she was stolen from as a child resides, and her long-delayed magical training awaits.
Magic Study takes it from there, as Yelena travels with one of Sitia’s chief magicians to meet her family, and journey to the capitol for her formal training. Along the way, however, plot ensues, and we find ourselves embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrow Ixia’s current ruler, a race to find a serial killer, and an almost deadly case of sibling rivalry.
Maria V. Snyder, as evidenced by the eventful prospectus of this second volume, makes a concerted effort to have revelations unfold and conflicts transpire, but Magic Study only rarely manages to overcome the disadvantage of being at a remove from the happenings in Ixia. As fascinating as Snyder’s worldbuilding in Sitia is (more on that later), its court intrigue can’t hold a candle to Ixia’s, and that same intrigue is kept at arm’s length more often than it is at close quarters.
With everything that made Poison Study so exciting absent here, Snyder’s follow-up starts in dire straits when it comes to building a compelling narrative (and one that feels like it still belongs in the same world)…and in dire straits it remains.
Centrally, all of its most important confrontations land on the serial killer plot mentioned above, a plot which, owing to what might generously be called a detour, falls into place right when better timing might have instead built a twist into what was already there. Even late in the book, when this plot rises above the others to take the captain’s seat, it can’t shake off the trappings of a diversion, and the book at large, in consequence, can sometimes feel like a digression in the macro.
We’re nearly three-fourths of the page time in before the Ixian delegation arrives for a brief diplomatic stay, and they have very little to do with what, by now, has become Magic Study‘s primary narrative thrust, but I still felt my ears perking up like, Oh. They’re here! Now the story can start.
In reality, though, the closest we get to rekindling Poison Study‘s fire is in the introduction of Cahil, the last remaining member of Ixia’s royal family, who fled to Sitia when the current government took power. Snyder, however, mostly dances around this seditious subplot and its potential: it’s a quiet simmer to the other plot’s fire, and the unlikely temporary camaraderie Cahil finds with Yelena is neither deep nor revelatory enough to change things where Ixia is concerned, leaving one to ponder why Snyder bothered with it in the first place. It might even be the best dynamic in the novel, but the simple fact remains that it is one among Magic Study‘s many irrelevancies––potential, yes, but, ultimately, wasted potential.
With that neglected, the only element in this second installment that can really hope to compete with the first is found in worldbuilding. In Ixia, Poison Study offered us a military government more like what you’d find in sci-fi, coupled with the magical, medieval setting of the world at large. Sitia, the domain of Magic Study, is a magical union of clans, each with its own traditions, terrains, and magical practices. There are only two we really get to know––Zaltana, where Yelena is from, and Sandseed, where Yelena uncovers the true nature of her unique powers––but what we see of them is intriguing, particularly where the mystical desert Sandseed magicians and their talents are concerned.
Snyder is truly adept at mining the tropes of the traditional, medieval quest fantasy for ideas but looking elsewhere when it comes to crafting the geography and politics of her kingdoms. Even where Magic Study falls short on intrigue, it still invites the imagination with its powerful, disparate aesthetics: the rich, teeming jungle of Yelena’s past, the vast, exposed plains where a crucial fight plays out, the sands and shadowy rock formations she must pass through to seek the help of a Sandseed magician by firelight.
That, with some of the dynamics we get to see Yelena develop with her fellow magicians, and with one of the members of her estranged family, helps replenish some of the substance the book forfeits in pursuing what mostly amounts to a tangent. Page-by-page, it still manages to be an enjoyable experience, and most of the new characters, with the one-note exceptions of Roze, Sitia’s highest magician, and Goel, a loathsomely cheesy villain from Cahil’s entourage, make for worthy additions to the series’ already strong ensemble.
Considered exclusively on its own, it’s a passable (if slightly lackluster in the plot department) work of fantasy, but it’s deeply frustrating as an entry into the story Poison Study started. As tempting as its new horizon might be, the tenuous link of its story to that of book one might prove too weak for the trilogy, which ends with 2008’s Fire Study, to make a cohesive stand.
Plenty of fantasy series are content to let the unexplored areas of their map be just that: completely absent from the page. With this tendency in mind, I was initially thrilled to see that Magic Study wandered outside the borders of its predecessors, but with the result in my hands, I can’t help but fear we may have wandered too far.