Yelena is scheduled to be executed when we meet her for murdering the son of her ruling general. She is spared at the last minute by the chief of intelligence of another district, Valek, who thinks she might be more useful as the general's poison taster. Valek teaches her the art of poisons (hence the title, poison study) while keeping her indentured through sinister means: feeding her a poison to which only he has the antidote.
As the story goes on, we learn more about Yelena's dark back story, and we watch her slowly begin to overcome her trauma as she begins to grow truly talented in her work and make friendships and connections within the district she's working in. But it isn't all walks in the forest and dueling with friends, oh no. There are assassination attempts, plans for overthrowing of the regime, and betrayal upon betrayal and scheme upon scheme, until poor Yelena doesn't know who to trust or whether she might even survive the games she's playing on a board that is far above her level.
Will she rise to it? Or will she fall?
So as a romance, this is a 11/10 on the slow-burn scale but I really liked that, because I like slow-burn if it's done well. Here, it is. It's pretty obvious that Valek, resident Danger Bae, is the love interest just from the way he's introduced and the way that Yelena talks about him. They have a student/master relationship that gradually blossoms into one of mutual respect and then, belatedly, affection. Watching them go from distrusting each other completely to gradually falling for each other is so rewarding. Also, Valek-- oh my God, I burn, I pine, I perish. He might even be worth the poison, I don't know.
As a fantasy novel, I'd say it works just as well as a romance. It's dark and brooding, and it has some excellent plotting. I read this for the first time in college and the twists blew me away then. They blew me away a second time, because reading it ten years later, I actually remembered very little. I think it delivers on creating a world that feels very believable, and I haven't enjoyed watching a heroine struggle against the odds this much since reading about Katniss Everdeen in THE HUNGER GAMES or Rose Hathaway in VAMPIRE ACADEMY, even though I think the people shelving this book as young adult are wrong. While there is nothing in here that would really shock a young person, I don't think, it doesn't feel like a young adult book and the characters are much, much older. Also, both the imprints this was published under-- Harlequin Luna and Harlequin Mira-- are adult imprints.
If you like fantasy novels that teem with tension, heroines who are survivors, and love interests who seem icy and unattainable until they're not (hehe), I think you'll really love POISON STUDY.
5 out of 5 stars