The Study series is three books: one that’s great, one that’s decent, and one that kind of lost its way. Those descriptions are in book order. I’ll get more into the issues where it’s appropriate as I’m discussing each book, but I can vaguely say, without spoilers, that the problems are those that pop up frequently in fantasy novels, where there is a lot of questing back and forth chasing after MacGuffins. While stuff does happen in the literal sense on these journeys, in retrospect, they tend to blend together and form a murky, incoherent recollection of much of the plot and whether or not that was time well-spent. But let me get back to the good, because overall I did like the series well enough that I think I am going to eventually continue on with the spin-off novels. There will be spoilers in the discussion of the sequel novels for the previous book(s).
Poison Study (4.5 stars) leads with the exciting premise that Yelena, who is waiting to be executed as a prisoner in the country of Ixia, is instead offered the opportunity to become the Commander’s food taster. Thinking “why not,” Yelena accepts and immediately begins training in poison detection. Along the way, she befriends and earns the trust of many members of the castle’s staff, and as she regains her strength from being imprisoned, she learns to fight and defend herself against adversaries who are resentful that she was able to live. Her new skills, as well as her close position to the Commander, allow her to be among the first to notice, and to be able to investigate, what looks like a plot to overthrow the Commander, and as Yelena works to uncover who is behind it, her past catches up with her.
Poison Study is a strong opener. Yelena is a dynamic character who is quick on her feet, and she has an amusingly deadpan, no-nonsense approach to her interactions as well as when she is being tested as part of her training. The simplicity of the concept, including the detail that Yelena can’t ever escape because she requires a daily antidote to a poison she was dosed with on her first day, makes for a refreshingly straightforward espionage-style plot, where intrigue is limited to, mainly, the castle and the town that surrounds it. The story is driven by character interactions and Yelena’s basic, primal survival instinct. It’s tightly written and very good.
Magic Study (3.5 stars) finds Yelena exiled to Ixia’s southern neighbor and rival country, Sitia. The tension between the two countries is driven by both their differing political and social structures. Ixia is, essentially, a military totalitarianism regime (though, interestingly, the Commander isn’t a total despot, which gives the story a bit of nuance.) By comparison, Sitia’s entire society is characterized by the education of magic users and government by a council of magicians. Magic is not tolerated in Ixia, so Ixians have an inherent distrust of the Sitians. Once Yelena is found to possess magic power, and quite a unique form of it, she’s taken as an apprentice by one of Sitia’s Master Magicians. Here, unfortunately, is where the story started to lose direction. It gets very broad, and that theme continues into the last book. Without getting into specific details, there are multiple instances where Yelena is captured and manages to escape, and multiple antagonists who alternate giving Yelena trouble when she’s trying to focus on her conflict with one of the others. On top of all this, there’s the topic of her magic education, which could have been one of the more interesting parts of the book, given her uncommon abilities, but she barely spends any time training because she’s always running off half-cocked on some mission. Worse, she’s given a kind of magical spirit guide whose defining character trait is dispensing very vague advice and then getting frustrated when Yelena doesn’t understand it. And it’s like, between not being around her mentors at all, not having grown up with magic, and this guy’s oblique guidance, Yelena comes across as kind of ineptly fumbling her way through the whole magic thing. Her strengths from the first book of incisive planning and making executive leadership decisions still serve her well, but the magic stuff undermines her competence on the whole.
Fire Study (3 stars) does all of the stuff that’s bad from the second book. It seems like the whole book is spent riding from place to place and then being betrayed once they get there. The person who ends up being the Big Bad seems like they were chosen just because of their previously hostile relationship with Yelena and Snyder needed them to be the supreme evil to justify their otherwise random hatred of Yelena. As for Yelena herself, she is practically paralyzed by her mistrust of every situation. It’s completely justified, but the characterization is perplexing, because the plot wants you to believe that Yelena is exercising caution, and yet she still jumps first and looks later at almost every opportunity to go riding after some clue. It’s exhausting and every new mission seems to lead to the same end, which is nowhere.
I haven’t even gotten to what I think is the weakest thorough-line across all of the books, which is the romance with Valek, the Ixian advisor to the Commander. Their relationship was telegraphed in the sense that these things tend to happen in books like this, but it was underdeveloped at its onset and continued to be a rather strange tangent considering how much time they spend apart.
But, you know, three stars. Meh. I had to see it through, and I wasn’t completely disgusted by it, just kind of fatigued and frustrated that the story took the most circuitous route to its ending. I wish, given the attention that was paid to Yelena’s combat training, that more time was spent developing her magic in a controlled environment rather than just having her fortuitously figure out just what to do at just the right time, as necessary. There was a whiff of special snowflake about that, and it was unfortunate as Yelena herself is so practical and would be utterly appalled by being considered that way.
As I said at the beginning, though, I’m still interested in Snyder’s upcoming books set in this world. I am proceeding with caution, but I’m encouraged that, for once, it seems my opinions are with the majority, in that the ratings on GR for Study #1-3 do decline. What is encouraging is that they seem to pick back up again for the spin-offs. It’s hard for me to recommend a series where I was let down by the end, but the fact is that the first book is so good that it does make you want to read on. So, take from that what you will.