In Maria Snyder's Poison Study, law says that the next prisoner to be executed is offered the job of becoming the Commander's food taster, to protect him from would-be poisoners. Yelena's crime was murder. She stabbed a man who had been torturing her and others for years, but the whole truth is not widely known, so she faces much fear and distrust when she first gets the position.
She works for Valek, the rather invincible and terribly clever right-hand man of the Commander. The kind of man who can fight four armed soldiers—using only a beer flagon—and come out on top. He's cold, ruthless, and fiercely loyal. Also a bit frightening, and fairly off limits. We soon begin to feel the romantic tension between the two. A deliciously slow build. It's one of my favorite parts of the book…until Snyder starts beating us about the head with it. Until Valek starts stepping out of characters to get all lovey dovey. The romance really begins to lose its charm then.
There are some other issues with the book: repetitions, plot holes, the cliché of a kingdom being saved by a perfect heroine (strong, beautiful, kind, athletic, full of magic, desirable to all).
However, the political intrigue, the world-building, the unusual processes of poison-tasting, and the interesting relationships make up for the flaws, and engrossed me from start to finish.
The premise (though not the exact plot) could have worked without ANY magic at all. I'm always searching for books that have a medieval/fantasy feel but that aren't historical fiction and aren't fantasy. You get the creative cultural world-building without the pesky overpowering and mystical magic. Such a rare genre. One I don't even know how to name, but which I adore. A genre I love to write. A genre I can't for the life of me write a good query letter about. One I think I'll probably continue writing in the future. This could have been such a book. What a shame that it wasn't.
Still, I really enjoyed it, despite its imperfections. It kept me up late reading, and that's the mark of a good story.