rating: 4 of 5 stars
I strongly recommend reading Poison Study, Assassin Study, Magic Study, and Power Study all at a go. The two novellas are optional, but canonical and fun.
Snyder's world seems to be made up of just two countries: Ixia and Sitia. Ixia has been ruled by Commander Ambrose and his generals for about a decade when Poison Study starts, after a military coup overthrew the old monarchy. There are no beggars, every child is entitled to an education, nobody has to go hungry or homeless, and promotions are based solely on skill, with no gender or racial discriminationâ€”but every citizen also has to wear a uniform declaring his or her proper location and job function, government approval is required for marrying, moving to a new home, or changing jobs, and anybody identified as having magic talent is killed immediately. Everyone is subject to the Code of Behavior, and there are no exceptions for any kind of extenuating circumstances. If you kill someone, you are sentenced to death, even if you were defending yourself or another.
Yelena has been in the Commander's dungeon for most of a year after killing the son of General Brazell. Valek, Ambrose's spymaster, gives her a choice: go to the gallows, or become the Commander's food taster. The job doesn't have a long life expectancy, as poisoning attempts are fairly common, but Yelena sees a chance at life better than immediate death, and takes the job.
Yelena manages to survive several attempts to murder her. The fact that Brazell wants her dead is understandable, but the other attempts are mysterious. Why would a Sitian master magician try to kill her? Who would slip poison into her wine?
Magic Study finds Yelena in Sitia, learning to cope with a very different way of life. Magic is almost taken for granted, and a strong family/clan structure forms the backbone of the government. But why are there beggars in the streets, and why is it that only those who can afford it are educated? Everyone in Sitia believes that life in Ixia must be horrific, but looking around her, Yelena sees that Ambrose's rule does have its benefits.
Fire Study moves between Sitia and Ixia, involving the leaders of both nations and intriguers who want to bring both of them down by pitching them against each other. Yelena and her friends are trying to prevent a war and reveal the traitors, but they've been declared outlaw and have to sneak around trying to figure out what's going on.
Another reviewer found Yelena too talented for belief, but I found her fairly realistic. She certainly isn't good at everythingâ€”she could use a lot of help in terms of social skills!â€”and the skills that she begins with and gains over the course of the trilogy do make sense. She trained as an acrobat when she was a child, so it does make sense that she is able to learn some types of self-defense without too much trouble. Some of her aptitudes make more sense after she learns more about her family background. She does find that she has magical abilities, but she isn't good at everything, and indeed, cannot seem to master some tasks that other magicians consider rudimentary.
I did find some of the betrayals to be difficult to comprehend, as some of the traitors would have no defense against mental scans. There's a Sitian Ethical Code of Conduct that prohibits non-consensual scans, but it doesn't apply to criminals, and in a war situation, I found it hard to believe that nobody ever did a little telepathic peeking at the people around them.
These were fun books, and they could be useful in looking at the pros and cons of different types of governments with teens. There's some sex in the books, but nothing terribly explicit. The violence is more troublesome, but the author never dwells on it.