I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
This book did not start out well for me. And I have to say that that was entirely my fault. Due to my arbitrary mood at the time, I felt the incredibly overwhelming urge to nitpick, and this was prime nitpicking material. Words used twice in the same paragraph? Ugh, same old YA writing habits. Then Valek/Mr. Love Interest walked in, with his sapphire blue eyes and piercing glare, and as soon as he started grabbing the heroine's elbow ('cause elbow-grabbing is sort of a thing these days) I waited for the requisite scene of the heroine being slammed into a wall by the hero. Page 105: Oh, there it is! *yawn* What, am I supposed to swoon or something? Blah, yet another YA author who thinks replacing the Hero's Journey with a girl and piling on the romance cliches makes things original.
Or so I thought?
Settling into the story, I decided to squash my immaturity and do as any dutiful reader would: to, in the interests of being a well-intentioned reader and all, suspend disbelief and see what the story might have to offer. I was pleasantly surprised by Yelena's agency, and her ability to evoke sympathy with me when she began recalling her traumatic past. Her experiences actually matter, not just as lip-service to adding "realism," nor as a desirable element that makes her special. The presence of female characters in this book is a strong one, playing the roles of friends, leaders, soldiers, and fellow comrade-in-arms (sort of; thinking of Irys's character here, as well as Maren) in a way that suggests Snyder went out of her way to acknowledge women as, y'know, half the damn human population. What I first judged as a turning point into the same bland story of a mysterious mentor coming out of nowhere to inform the main character of her previously unknown special powers, turned into something completely different. I enjoyed the fact that the characters in this book are mostly independent agents in their own right, with motives and relationships of their own, not just set props to fluff up the heroine.
What I do find this book to be lacking in is tension. I have some trouble trying to pinpoint why this is. It could be the world, which is consistent enough to hold up to scrutiny, but the combination of a vaguely medieval world and a dystopian situation a la the Hunger Games with the kingdom being divided into military districts gives the setting a conflicted atmosphere. History is given, but mostly as exposition in lieu of centrally important political dynamics. This could be because of part of the story's focus being portioned onto Yelena, which makes sense, but neither her personal story nor the external movements of the plot are quite deep enough to offer much beyond what the story already presents at face value, especially as the two threads are kept mostly separate. Training in fighting skills, a common trope of fantasy, is presented pretty straightforwardly (albeit quite fun at times, with a healthy dose of realism in that Yelena isn't always the BEST at EVERYTHING), along with your average set of cartoonish villains whose only role in the story is to be just that: cartoonish villains, right down to the torture, brainwashing, gloating declarations of triumph, and rape, all of which is given completely unironically, with little insight into what drives them to act that way.
Perhaps, even as I was ready to sneer contemptuously at this story, I was also looking for too much. There's been some debate over this book's YA label, due to the inclusion of violence, sexual or otherwise, which I think is handled pretty level-headedly for the most part; no insulting titillation or over-glamorization of gore here. All that aside though, I don't think it matters. The way subject matter is addressed is always a lot more important than whether you decide to include it. Honestly, who cares how old the audience is, especially within the range of only a few years? What is universally deserved by readers of all ages is a level of thoughtfulness and complexity that should strive to match reality as closely as possible. One thing I've come to value in what I read is an attempt to value humanity as a whole, an acknowledgment that everyone has a unique point of view, not simply the one we automatically pigeonhole people into when they play a specific role in a story. Such amazing questions could be explored, even within the confines of simply telling an enjoyable, fast paced story. Poison Study does do that to an extent, avoiding stereotypes and allowing secondary characters to act on their own terms. A truly unpredictable and thoughtful grappling of themes is not something you'll find, but I do think Snyder did the best she could, and for that I'd say it's pretty decent. I had a fun time with it despite the rocky start, the blame for which, as mentioned before, is entirely mine.