Locked in a coffin-like darkness, there is nothing to distract me from my memories of killing Reyad. He deserved to die—but according to the law, so do I. Here in Ixia, the punishment for murder is death. And now I wait for the hangman’s noose.
But the same law that condemns me may also save me. Ixia’s food taster—chosen to ensure that the Commander’s food is not poisoned—has died. And by law, the next prisoner who is scheduled to be executed—me—must be offered the position.
Executive Summary: enrapturing
So this is next month’s book club book that I read immediately after last month’s one which I finished late. Well at least I’m on time this month! It was available as an instant e-book from the Houston Public Library, and this one actually fit the reader (unlike Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close–maybe that’s why I liked this one better!)
The book is set in a fantasy land of Ixia. There isn’t really any explanation of what era it is but I get the idea that it’s somewhere between the late middle ages and modern times (no guns). It is ruled by the Commander who is a fair ruler, but who (with his right hand man Valek) took over by killing the previous king and his followers.
We meet 19 year old Yelena in the first pages of the novel. We know that something bad had happened to her, and she is now in prison about to be executed. She is led to meet one of the Commander’s officers (Valek) who pardons her execution in agreement for her being the Commander’s official taste tester. Valek brings back two cups and convinces Yelena it is a toast. It turns out that he has poisoned one with Butterfly’s Dust to ensure that she remains in the castle (she has to come to him every day to get a dose of antidote). We also find out that the reason that she was in prison was because she murdered a General’s son, and we meet Margg, a brash woman who seems to be Valek’s attendant.
As Yelena begins her training to become the food taster, she is haunted by dreams of the abuse she suffered at the hands of General Brazell and his son Reyad under the guise of Brazell’s orphanage (as well as visions of the ghost of Reyad himself). She is a quick learner of poisons and finally is to begin tasting poisons, starting with the deadliest one (with the thought being that if she doesn’t survive that one, there’s no need to go on). She survives after a few days of being unconscious and heads to the baths. When she returns, she sees two of Brazell’s men waiting outside her door and saying lewd things. She sneaks to the kitchen where she meets Rand, the cook. She learns that a food taster is a risky job and the rumor is that the previous food taster was poisoned by Valek intentionally.
After a visit to see Valek test the Commander’s food, Yelena is attacked by two of Brazell’s guards. She manages to evade them and then when cornered, mysteriously renders them unconscious with a buzzing noise that she produces. Valek finds her, takes her to the medic and moves her quarters into his suite until Brazell and his guards are gone. (Brazell being there to lobby for a new factory.)
While recovering in the infirmary, Yelena considers the buzzing noise which allowed her to escape the guards. She believes its start happened when she was being tortured by Brazell and Reyad, and starts to consider the possibility that it might be magic. Magic has been forbidden in Ixia since Commander Ambrose came to power, and any magicians who have been discovered have been killed.
Yelena has her final test before she can fully become the Commander’s taster. Rand visits her in the infirmary and tells her about the staff’s betting on her surviving (or not) the My Love poison and passing (or not) the final test. Valek returns and sees Rand. Valek tells Yelena not to trust him (common theme of this peculiar love triangle). Valek’s test is that all but one is not poisoned and Yelena has to find it. She tells him all are poisoned, and he tells her she fails. She challenges him to drink the “clean” one, and he begrudgingly agrees that one’s been poisoned too. She goes to taste for the Commander’s lunch.
She begins to suspect Margg of messing with her after finding her journal open and a message written in the dust of her dresser. Valek ensures her that Margg can be trusted but she starts taking matters into her own hands to protect herself. She researches poisons to hopefully find the antidote for the Butterfly Dust so she can escape.
Yelena wants to attend the fire festival but she has no money since the taster doesn’t get paid with actual money. Coincidentally, Valek and the Commander are looking for a “fugitive” for a training exercise and Valek suggests Yelena for the job with the incentive that the longer she evades them, the more money she will receive. She agrees, and then tries a dessert called Criollo for the Commander that Brazell had sent.
Yelena overhears Margg and the staff taking bets on how long she will last as fugitive. Valek threatens Yelena for leaking the exercise, when Yelena knows that it was Margg who read the information from Valek’s desk. Yelena agrees to bait the snitch during the fire festival. We learn that Yelena had trained to be an acrobat, and we also learn that the informant is not who they need to be concerned about. Rather, they need to be concerned about a southern magician (Irys) who tries to kill Yelena at the fire festival. After being saved by Valek, he tells her that perhaps she was originally from Sitia.
Yelena then sets off on her training exercise, managing to evade the two teams for quite a while. She is eventually enticed out of hiding by the same magician she saw at the fire festival. Irys convinces Yelena that she too is a magician and must come study in Sitia to avoid overturning the balance of magic. Yelena agrees to come within the year, when she can find the antidote for the Butterfly’s Dust. As Irys disappears, Yelena waits for Valek. Valek arrives and shortly thereafter, a succession of wagons appears heading towards Brazell’s land. Valek steals a few of the fruits that they are carrying to investigate what they are. When Valek leaves, Yelena is “captured” by two men she had seen earlier–Janco and Ari. They escort her back to the Commander. Yelena recommends Janco and Ari who are then promoted and in turn, offer her a favor. She asks them to teach her how to defend herself.
Yelena gets into a rhythm of tasting the Commander’s food, training with Avi and Janco (and a new addition, Maren), and researching the fruits as well as potential antidotes for her poison. Valek begins to suspect that there is something malicious going on with the Criollo (as the Commander eats some daily and Brazell sends more and more) and tells Yelena to stop eating it to see if there are any side effects. Throughout this, she is led to an informant (Star) via Margg (who is actually trying to sell her out to Valek) and finds out that Rand is the main castle informant because he owes money on his gambling debts. Rand and Valek continue to be at odds.
We find out more horrific stuff about the abuse that Yelena suffered at the hands of Brazell and Reyad, and the torture and rape that led to her finally snapping and killing Reyad. The generals come to the castle to discuss the change in the next in command and the fact that a Sitian delegation will be meeting with the Commander. It turns out that Brazell is the next in line…and his advisor Mogkan is a magician.
When the Sitian delegation arrives, Irys is their leader. When she presents the Commander with cognac, it is poisoned with “My Love”. Yelena blacks out and Valek hides that there is anything awry. After awaking she goes to the kitchen where Rand informs her that he has hit a dead end on the fruits as well. They throw some of the beans from inside the fruit into the fire and realize that it’s the missing ingredient of the Criollo. Yelena finds out that she is traveling with the Commander to Brazell’s factory–without Valek.
While traveling, Rand lures Yelena into a trap to be captured by Star but has a last minute change of heart and is killed in the scuffle. (I had grown to like him despite his working with the “enemy”). Yelena manages to kill the two thugs and then Valek appears. As Star is being taken away, she leaks that Mogkan (also named Kangom) is her informant.
When they arrive at Brazell’s, Yelena is separated from the group and is required to report to Mogkan for her antidote. The Commander is in a dazed stupor. Mogkan obviously wants to find Valek but Yelena doesn’t know where he went after the fight. After touring the factory, Yelena realizes that there is a link between the advisors eating the Criollo and Mogkan’s power over them. Irys forms a mental connection with Yelena and tells her that Criollo is used in Sitia to open the mind for magic and that Mogkan must have a circle of power to help him and that when Yelena finds it to chant Irys’s name.
Yelena and Valek (who always turns up at the right time) find the circle of power–the rest of the orphans that Yelena knew when she lived there, but Mogkan catches them and throws them in the dungeon. In the dungeon, she tells Valek all her tales of Brazell and Reyad. She finds out that the Butterfly’s dust is not real. The antidote is the true poison and if she doesn’t receive it regularly, she will become very sick but it will pass eventually. She convinces Mogkan and the guards that she is dead. They go to carry her out and Valek is able to kill them and swipe the keys allowing them to escape, rescue the children, and kill Mogkan. In the meantime, Yelena and Valek do a bit of slapping bellies (which was kind of a surprise but not really?) and find out that Yelena was kidnapped from Sitia and is a “Zaltana” (not really any explanation in this book as to what that means).
Yelena “wakes” the Commander up from his Criollo haze by finding him in his mind. It turns out that the Commander is gender confused and grew up identifying more with a woman. In his youth, he killed a snow cat (very ferocious and nearly impossible to kill) to prove that he was masculine. This is the dream location where she located him and coaxed him back to reality.
He, by law, has to execute her for being a magician, however, he gives her some leeway to escape before she is punished. She leaves to head to Sitia to learn about magic and her family with the promise that she and Valek will be together soon.
Verdict: 4 stars
I read this book basically nonstop straight through. It was addicting. I found the story unusual and interesting, and there weren’t any obvious plot holes like in a lot of stories like this. I just received the sequel that I had requested from the library and I am really excited to start reading it.
I would definitely recommend this to anyone who liked Hunger Games. To me, it has a very similar feel.