Maria V. Snyder’s Study trilogy is a fantasy, action-filled love story set in a world with two countries with diametrically opposed systems of government. One country, Ixia, is a military regime with rigid rules. Everyone wears a uniform and has a role to fulfil. Sitia, the other country, is a capitalist democracy. The people are free to make their own choices and to decide their own roles but there are winners and losers.
In this environment we have our protagonist, Yelena Zaltana. She killed a man (for good reason but the reasons for murder don’t matter in Ixia. Just the crime) and thus, rather fittingly is sentenced to death. However, she’s pulled off death row in order to become the poison taster for the Commander of Ixia. She studies under Valek, spymaster extraordinaire, who alternatively makes her drink deadly poisons and gives her sexy, smouldering looks (and, since the book is written in first person, he gives me sexy, smouldering looks and I approve whole-heartedly). Long story short, her position as a poison taster allows her to be privy to state affairs that she otherwise wouldn’t be and she eventually ends up saving Ixia and getting Valek sexy-legs spymaster to fall in love with her. But, alas, she finds out that she’s got magical abilities, something that is outlawed in Ixia. And, despite having saved the Commander’s bacon, Ixia’s laws are non-negotiable (see the murder laws above) so Yelena hightails it out of there to Sitia where she’ll get a chance to learn how to use magic.
BUT, turns out that she’s a rare and dangerous type of magician. The last few people who showed up with her kind of magic went power-mad and tried to take over Sitia and turn it into a dictatorship. So they don’t really want her either. So she must prove to everyone that she’s not evil and ends up saving Sitia from a nasty uprising involving people using forbidden blood magic (For once, I’d like to see blood magic used for good. Especially if it involved the occasional death for the greater good and that turning out to be the best option available. Excellent moral quandary there. Someone get on that, please?). Of course, she doesn’t do this alone and Sexy-legs proves that not only is he a badass, he’s a badass who’s prepared to wander around a country where there’s a death warrant out for him in order to get some tail. That I can respect.
Three things I got out of these books, two good and one that almost ruined the books for me. The first (as you might have gathered) is Mr. Sexy-legs. Snyder’s got a way of writing Valek that made me immediately fall in love with him. This was despite the fact that, because I tend to skip right over descriptive passages (a bad habit that has caught me out a few times) I initially pictured Valek to look like this:
So despite my initial confusion about why Yelena was getting smitten by Friar Tuck ‘s sexy stare, I still fell for Valek, hard. He’s the perfect combination of brave and sexy and dutiful. Dutiful to the point that when Yelena’s revealed to have magic powers, he’s prepared to kill her if the Commander orders it. However, he makes it clear that if he does he’ll be killing himself right afterwards.
Apparently suicide pacts are the ultimate form of devotion.
(Please note the sarcasm there. Please)
Anyway, the second part that I loved (which you might have guessed from my introduction) was Snyder’s portrayal of the two societies.
Just going to say this upfront, I have an ethnocentric point of view. I’m from Australia, a democratic society. I grew up being told, (and wholeheartedly believing) that a democratic, free society was the best way to be, no questions, no ifs or buts, that’s it. And dictatorships, especially of the military persuasion, are bad and limiting and terrible in all ways. Because I didn’t grow up in a country run by a military regime I will always have an outside view and because I grew up the way I grew up, I will believe that a democracy is better.
So, considering this, imagine my surprise when the military regime in Ixia weren’t the bad guys. In every book, movie, television show etc ever, the goal of the protagonist is to overthrow the military in order to live freely. Because free is always better, right? I mean just look at Siti—
Oh, you’re telling me that Sitia has a poor and homeless class that is non-existent in Ixia because everyone is given an occupation and talented people are recognised despite where they come from? And that Sitia often places too much power in the hands of the committee ensuring that nothing ever gets done in a timely manner? So is this book pro-military regime then? But what about the criticism of the inflexibility of Ixia’s laws? Or the way Snyder shows how power can corrupt one of the generals and the effects that can have?
This is something Snyder pulls off with absolute aplomb. She’s created these two societies that anyone with a modicum of cultural background will recognise: The free, democratic society and the strict, military one. And she doesn’t make judgements. She doesn’t declare one to be better than the other or one to be worse than the other. She acknowledges that both systems have their advantages (Purpose and efficiency in Ixia, and freedom and empowerment in Sitia) and that they have their disadvantages (Inflexibility and inefficiency, respectively). And that’s okay. That’s the extent of judgement. That the systems exist and that neither is perfect.
And I love that. It gives the reader a chance to see both sides of the story and allows them to make what they will of it. It’s refreshing and, though I know it’s a little strange to name political systems as a reason you should read a story, if for no other reason, Snyder’s take on these two opposing systems is a great reason why you should seek out these stories and give them a go.
Now for that one thing that bugged me and left me unable to love these books despite the presence of Sexy-legs and everything he represents.
The characters aren’t emotionally real. They make giant leaps with little to no preamble and they tend to change their emotional stance on things with only the slightest of provocation.
Two examples spring to mind. The first is when Sexy-legs and Yelena hook up. They’ve worked together for a year and there’s definitely been sexual tension there. There’s even been a drunken kiss that Sexy-legs aborted because they were drunk and that’s never a good idea. Fair enough. So time to admit that you’re undeniably attracted to each other and that you might want to try having a relationship? No? Oh, I see why, Sexy-legs has just admitted to poisoning you and causing you unimaginable pain. I can totally see why you wouldn’t want to be with him—
Oh? You want to declare undying love for each other instead? And sleep together despite Yelena being uneasy around men up until this point because her only experience with them has been through rape? (see: murder). But that’s totally okay because your sexual tension (interspersed with bouts of hating each other and the poisoning, can’t forget the poisoning) has totally been love this whole time?
That’s… not how people work, book. And if it is, people have gotten a lot scarier since I last checked.
A second example of this weird jump in emotions come with Yelena’s brother. So, it turns out that Yelena’s got family in Sitia, a family she was stolen from as a young child (See: murder). So then she shows up and her brother hates her. Okaay. I’m sure there’s a motivation in there somewhere, we’ll deal. Oh, okay, he hates her partially because he feels guilty because he was the one who was supposed to be looking after her on that day (awww, big brother) and because he resents her being the centre of attention, even when she disappeared her parents concentrated more on finding her than on him. Okay! That’s nice! A double whammy of emotional motivations for her brother to loathe Yelena. Sibling rivalry at its most potent. Guilt and resentment.
Okay, so a magic man helps to bring these issues to their head by taking them on a magic spirit journey (or whatever) and… now everything’s okay?
The double team of guilt and resentment have been eating away at her brother for years. His entire childhood, all of his teenage years and even into his early adulthood. And the intervention of a magic man (that takes a grand total of two pages) makes everything okay again and replaces two things that have been major guiding forces in his life with… a loving relationship between siblings?
PEOPLE DON’T WORK LIKE THAT.
When things come out in the open, especially things that have been kept close to someone’s heart for so long, they don’t go away. Yes, they’re out there now, but that means that you can begin to deal with them now instead of ignoring them and letting them fester. It doesn’t mean that you can rubber stamp them with a ‘Complete’ label and send them on their way with nary another word.
I’ve mentioned before that characters and emotions make the story for me. And, mostly, Snyder manages this beautifully. Her characters have their flaws, they have their emotional motivations and Snyder’s build-up to the emotional moments is amazing. But then there’s something missing there. There’s no bridge between the build-up and the resolution. There’s just an unfathomable gap we’re supposed to leap over to get there and long jump was never my sport. If more time was taken, maybe with Yelena and Valek hooking up and deciding to try trusting each other instead of declaring that they’ve loved each other all along (and I do mean declaring in a ‘we’re now having an upfront conversation about our deepest emotions because that’s what people do now’ sense). Or maybe if Yelena’s brother began to forgive both himself and her and tried to forge a new relationship with her despite their pasts instead of forgetting their history completely. Then it might work.
Characters make the story and if they begin acting in ways that do not make sense or make giant leaps of emotion with little to no explanation the story begins to fall apart. Pay attention to your characters, ensure that what they’re doing is consistent with who they are as people and consistent with how real people act. If you can’t imagine yourself (or anyone you know) making the leap between sexual tension and undying love (Seriously, my crappy romance novels normally make that jump better than Yelena and Sexy-legs did) so quickly it shouldn’t happen that quickly.
Despite my gripes, ultimately I enjoyed these novels. I read the three of them in a weekend where I was supposed to be doing many, many assignments and I’m not sorry for that. Sexy-legs is sexy beyond words. The plot was nice and sweeping and it’s well written (Reminds me of Tamora Pierce’s writing, which is about the highest compliment I can give any author). If you’ve got a chance, check these novels out. Just don’t invest yourself in the emotions of the characters else you will find yourself falling into a chasm of emotional-non-logic.
After NaNoWriMo I’ll be looking at Kerry Greenwood’s Cooking the Books. (See? Crime. I can do other genres).