“Look around you, Yelena, I chided myself. The poisoned food taster who converses with ghosts.”
No one can say that Yelena’s life is boring. A found orphan, she ended up killing the son of the man who adopted her. She was imprisoned and sentenced to death, but at the very last moment she was offered an alternative: become the Commander’s food taster. This of course means that she may die at any time, as Commander’s food tasters drop dead rather often,1 but hey, it’s a reprieve. The man whose son Yelena killed is quite unhappy with her being allowed to live though, and, as he’s one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, this is bound to be a problem sooner or later. As is the fact that Yelena discovers she has magic abilities, while living in a kingdom where such a feat is punishable by death. Not that the magicians in the kingdom nearby are happy with someone untrained tapping into their power source either.
Ah, and there is more…
I started this after reading some comments of the review of Grave Mercy over at Dear Author‘s. As there was more than one person saying this book is better than Grave Mercy, and I have liked Grave Mercy quite a bit, it was only natural for me to want to read it. The first bunch of pages were however terribly disappointing, as it seemed to me the writing style was even simpler than Grave Mercy’s (and I expected better, not worse). However, as the pages sped by and I became emotionally invested in the characters the book became more and more interesting. I still like Grave Mercy better, but this one is okay enough too.
Yelena’s adventures take place in the kingdom of Ixia, in a world different from ours (there are six seasons, for example). After the current leader took over the former king, the territory “had been separated into eight Military Districts each ruled by a General” (reminding me of the districts in Hunger Games). However, this is the first time I read about a military dictatorship in a medieval setting, and I found the idea in itself quite promising. And yet to me this regime was a mixed bag — ideologically, I think dictatorship is bad, a military one even more so. At one point Velek says something along the lines of how the only changes their taking over has effected in people’s lives were providing everyone with a uniform and a job. But there is more to it than that: bureaucracy is overflowing, the borders are closed, people with magic powers are killed on sight. Take this quote for example:
Every citizen of the Territory of Ixia had a specific job. After the takeover, everyone had been appointed an occupation. A citizen was allowed to move to a different town or Military District, but proper forms were required. A completed transfer request needed approval from the supervisor, and proof that a position was being held at the new address. Without the proper documents, a civilian found in the wrong neighborhood was arrested. Visiting other districts was acceptable, but again only as long as the proper papers were obtained and shown to the soldiers on arrival.
It felt a bit strange to have as characters people who defended this system. :)
Valek (“the Commander’s personal security chief and leader of the vast intelligence network for the Territory of Ixia“) is a study in contrasts. There is nothing combat-related he cannot do — he’s probably the medieval equivalent for a modern-day SEAL. He is a good strategist and a cold-blooded killer; to him most people are pawns. Yet he has a sensitive, artistic side too: his suite is filled with rocks, which he sculpts into beautiful, detailed shapes — and I liked that about him, it humanized him somewhat. On the whole however I had the same problem with him as with the regime: there are things about him that I did not particularly like (some of his traits are more appropriate to a villain), yet on the whole I did get emotionally invested in his welfare.
However, Yelena and I started out on the wrong foot, as she spends the first chunk of the book being dizzy/lightheaded for various reasons2. And then she treats Valek with what I saw as insolence (she loses patience in a moment I didn’t think she should have), and afterwards I had trouble respecting her, as I found her reaction on the downright stupid side. Remember that she and Valek were basically at opposing ends of the ladder, and he had the power of life and death over her, so angering him was… way less than ideal3. Luckily for me, Yelena turns out not to be the damsel in distress type I thought her at first. She is smart and resourceful and later on she even learns how to fight. She turns into a badass character (the good kind of badass), and I ended up actually liking her.
I thought the dynamics between Yelena and Valek were pretty well done. With a few exceptions [see footnote 3], the relationship between them took a plausible course: they start out as enemies, wary of one another. Yelena’s life does not particularly matter for Valek [which makes the footnote 3 thing even more jarring], other than his wanting to be spared the inconvenience of having to train another food taster. Yelena sees Valek as an opressor — it’s true that he had saved her from her death sentence, but he had also poisoned her more than once, and even warned her he will do so again. As time passes however their rough corners smooth, and they become friends of sorts. Bit by bit Valek discovers Yelena’s qualities, and he starts seeing her as an actual person. Yelena also grows attached to him — I thought her reaction on hearing someone gossiping about Valek caring for her was particularly cute: “Valek was deadly, moody and exasperating. But for some reason, I couldn’t get that silly grin to go away no matter how hard I tried“. Aaaaaw.
Other things I enjoyed, relationship-wise:
I was happy to see that some people did not like Yelena, as too often one meets the cliché of the heroine that is so magnificent no one can resist her. Although it’s usually women that don’t like her, so the cliché may still be there after all.
Also, it was interesting to see how some people avoided Yelena because her life was always on the line and one did not want to risk getting to care for her, only to have her die afterwards :) (although to be fair there have only been five food tasters in the last fifteen years so they may still have a few years with her :P )
Once Yelena moves past her “dizzy at everything” phase, the plot is actually interesting and quite fast paced. Not only does Yelena have to keep track of the many people who want her dead, but there’s something strange going on with the Commander, and it’s up to Valek (with Yelena’s help, of course) to untangle it. The last few chapters in particular kept me on the edge of my seat :)
What I liked most
There were lots of small details that I have enjoyed :) Such as the “edible adhesive” that Rand the cook has accidentally invented, and that was both very tasty and used to suture wounds. Or the idea that the food poisoner should be able to identify even the most lethal poisons, so that if the worst came to pass they would be able to announce the name of the poison with their dying breath.
Or the answer that Yelena offered when she was offered a chance to escape in the nearby kingdom:
I remembered my last offer, to be the food taster or to be executed. “What could you possibly offer me? I have a job, color-coordinated uniforms and a boss to die for. What more could I need?”
(her boss being “to die for” as in she was expected to literally die for him, tee hee)
Another idea I have liked is this:
“What about the knife?” I pointed to the long blade hanging on the wall. The crimson blood gleamed in the lantern light. In the three weeks I’d lived in Valek’s suite, it hadn’t dried. Valek laughed. “That was the knife I used to kill the King. He was a magician. When his magic couldn’t stop me from plunging that knife into his heart, he cursed me with his dying breath. It was rather melodramatic. He willed that I should be plagued with guilt over his murder and have his blood stain my hands forever. With my peculiar immunity to magic, the curse attached to the knife instead of me.” Valek looked at the weapons wall thoughtfully. “It was a shame to lose my favorite blade, but it does make for a nice trophy.”
What I liked least
Whenever Yelena is in need of rescuing, there Valek is. Which would have been great in theory, but some of the times his being there is less than plausible. Sure, the author did add a part where Valek’s mind was supposedly connected somehow with Yelena’s (why? how? especially given Valek’s peculiar resistance to magic), but it still felt a bit contrived.
Thoughts on the title
Love it :) Especially as the next book is titled Magic Study (in this one Yelena studies poisons, and in the next she will get to study the best way for her to use her magical abilities, see? :) ). There is a third book too but I don’t remember the title.
Thoughts on the ending
Too sudden! I could have done with a few more pages. Other than that however it was nice, every plot thread tied up properly (well, there still remains the question of what will happen to the relationship between Yelena and Valek).
Recommend it to?
At the moment it has a 4.21 on Goodreads, so on the whole people definitely liked it more than I did :) I would say that any YA lover in search for a badass heroine could give this a try.
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- For the life of me I don’t get why anyone would try to poison someone that has all his food tasted prior to eating it, but apparently people do do that. [↩]
- I get that she was weak after her months spent in prison, but still [↩]
- Speaking of which, I also found far fetched the parts hinging on Valek spending time and effort to protect Yelena himself — someone with his rank and responsibilities had nothing better to do than follow a former prisoner around? [↩]