Just before being executed for murder, Yelena is offered a deal: she can become a food taster for the Commander of Ixia and survive… as long as she doesn’t end up poisoned, or killed by the Commander’s political rivals. Yelena also has several other problems: the father of the guy she killed wants her dead; she might have magic in a country where all magicians are put to death; and the (tall dark and handsome) chief of security poisoned her as a guarantee that she won’t try to run away, and she’ll die if she doesn’t get a daily dose of antidote.
This book was a bit of a rollercoaster. Several times I was tempted to drop it, but then something would happen that made me think that it wasn’t such a bad book after all. And, every time I’d convinced myself that I liked the book, something really dumb happened and I had to facepalm at the stupidity of the characters. I was torn between two or three teacups, but by the last few chapters I was skimming to get to the end, and I know I wouldn’t recommend this book; so two teacups it is.
The big problem with this book is how bland and generic it is. On the surface Yelena is a strong heroine, athletic and smart, but if you dig down she’s just made up from a bunch of fantasy YA tropes. And sometimes she doesn’t even make sense, like the fact that she’s been locked in a cell for most of a year but somehow she’s still got all of her athletic skills. Sometimes her character isn’t consistent, even within the same scene, like when during her first meeting with Valek she’s so scared because he has the power to send her to the noose, but when he starts asking questions she replies by being a sarcastic little shit. And sometimes she’s a bit of a Mary Sue, I mean, she’s an athlete and picks up poison tasting and close combat fighting and lock-picking in a matter of a few weeks. (And also some magic, because why not.)
The setting was also meh. Ixia is a military regime ruled by those eight generals, but it’s not clear what they do aside from continually showing up at the castle to have meetings with the Commander. Ixia has lots of snow in the north and borders with Sitia on the south. You know those very detailed fantasy worlds that give you the impression that you’re living in there for a few hours along with the characters? Yeah… this is the complete opposite. We don’t know anything about the setting, not even the level of technology of this place. The narration uses archaic words sometimes, and guards are armed with swords and not guns, giving me the idea that we’re in some kind of fantasy middle ages; but then they’d start talking about special ops and getting a tan, so I have no idea.
And Valek. Urgh, Valek! I really love spymaster characters, but the problem with having someone who’s supposedly a genius strategist with spies all over the place is that you can’t have him act like a bumbling moron. Valek is unfortunately extremely incompetent, to the point that he can’t draw obvious conclusions that are immediate for Yelena and the reader. Instead, he sulks and kicks chairs and lets the bad guys scheme right under his nose. I have no idea how he managed to survive in his position for so long… Oh, wait, it’s because the baddies are even more incompetent than he is. Cartoonish Disney villains are more effective at killing the heroes. Team Rocket could give the baddies some pointers about how to kidnap people.
The romance was very subtle, so it didn’t bother me for most of the book, but at the end Yelena and Valek are literally thrown together and out of nowhere they start waxing lyrical about their mutual love. That, coupled with the clichéd revelation about Yelena’s ancestry, was the last straw. Yet another book for the “wasted an interesting premise” pile.