Poison Study is a genuinely different fantasy novel, which manages to create a fresh setting, give the heroine a novel occupation and have a compelling, emotionally charged plot.
The action takes place in Ixia, a country ruled by a fairly benign military dictatorship - headed by Commander Ambrose. The command structure and regimented approach to managing the lives of its citizens with uniforms and pre-determined job roles is well described and make an interesting change from all those books where the monarchy or aristocrats rule.
One of the features of the Commander's rule is a Code of Behaviour with specifies strictly applied punishments for every crime. Causing a death is rewarded with execution and self-defence or an accident are not permissible defences.
Yelena is an intriguing heroine, she's a condemned murderer who is saved from execution (or at least puts it off) by agreeing to become the food taster the the Commander, a risky position as many people would like to kill the Commander.
Yelena did kill someone, but her very good reasons for doing so are slowly revealed through the book. The book is written from her first person perspective and she has a very strong personality that really jumps out from the book. Her capacity for action and intelligence make her a very engaging lead character.
Yelena has a fascinating relationship with her immediate boss, Valek, the Commander's spy master. It's Valek who offers her the chance to be the food taster and as the threats on her life continue he becomes a sort of protector, but he is also the man who has to give her a daily antidote to a poison he dosed her with to stop her running away.
Valek is a curious character. He's an assassin who's fanatically loyal to the Commander, but the author slowly reveals that there is rather more to Valek than meets the eye, which make him all the more intriguing. And it's difficult to avoid being swept along with Yelena's evolving view of the man.
The Commander is another interesting character with an unusual secret.
There are some lovely minor characters like Ari and Janco, soldiers that Yelena befriends.
And there are a number of threatening characters, not all who turn out to be bad guys, but those who do are really, really bad.
I did find the casual brutality of parts of the book, in particular the frequent use of violence or threat of rape against Yelena, rather uncomfortable.
But overall this is a great book. Well written, compelling and different.