You’re awaiting execution for murder when you’re given a choice: Become the Commander’s food taster and daily risk death by poison, or get it over with quickly at the execution block. What do you choose?
That’s the premise for Poison Study, the first book in Maria V. Snyder’s Study trilogy. Arguably, it’s not a trilogy, as there are nine books in the Chronicles of Ixia, but from what I’ve read these three stand as their own trilogy – and besides, I’m still reading Fire Study. Whatever it is, I knew when I read the summary for Poison Study that I needed this series in my life, and so do you.
One of my favourite things about this series is the cultural and political backdrop. The first book is set in Ixia, a country ruled by a military dictatorship. With its strict rules and absolute ban on magic, it’s reminiscent of the dystopic regimes so often fought against in similar stories. Look closer, however, and it’s less clear-cut. It’s unjust that a person who kills in self-defence should be executed, but it is equally unjust for a noble to get off on that same charge, which is what happened before Commander Ambrose took charge and what his laws try to prevent. Moreover, Ambrose emphasises ability, not age or sex, giving women more opportunities to support themselves than they had previously. Instead of an evil military taking over from a benevolent monarchy, we see a society that rose out of a corrupt monarchy – flawed, yes, but composed primarily of people trying to do the right thing.
Magic Study takes us south to Sitia, and this is where the world-building takes on a much more fantastic feel. There’s something almost modern about Ixia. Perhaps it’s because it’s ruled by a military, or because technological advancement has gone some way towards making up for the lack of magic. Whatever it is, in comparison Sitia feels magical on an almost visceral level. Reading Magic Study, and now Fire Study, I’m reminded of why I fell in love with fantasy in the first place. It wasn’t because other worlds so effectively shed light on our own, or because fantasy worlds are a place to imagine equality that doesn’t exist in our society; as a little girl I was utterly unconcerned with such things. Instead what I sought was that sense of awe and wonder that only a well-crafted magical world can provide. It’s the reason I fell in love with Harry Potter, with Lord of the Rings, and it’s the reason I’ve fallen in love with the Study series.
I said I love Sitia for its magic and for the childlike sense of awe that instills in me, but the adult part of me also loves it because it departs from the standard mediaeval European mould. While it’s an exercise in futility to try to assign real-world races to fantastical worlds, it’s clear from descriptions that most Sitians, were they to set foot in the modern US or UK, would be considered POCs, though some, like Yelena, are paler and don’t stand out amongst the white Ixians. Moreover, each of the Sitian clans has its own unique way of life, none of which is immediately recognisable as a real-world culture. All of this, I’m sure, only adds to the gut feeling that this is a magical world.
The cultural distinctions between Ixia and Sitia mean that Magic Study stands out as a departure from Poison Study. Indeed, each book in the series is distinct, but they clearly ‘fit’ together. I’m sure we’ve all had that uncomfortable experience of opening the next book in a series and wondering what happened to the world and characters we thought we knew. Conversely, there are those series where no one seems to grow and every book seems the same. Snyder effectively balances between these two extremes, making each book its own discrete tale but one that naturally follows on from the previous. Common themes resonate between the books, and Yelena grows immensely, but organically, as a character.
Whether you’re looking for that sense of magical wonder or seeking a female protagonist who’s faced hard choices in life but still strives to do the right thing, the Study series has got you covered.
Nicola lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, where the ridiculously long winter nights are perfect for cosying up with a book and steaming cup of tea.