Yelena has been sentenced to death because she killed a man. However, shortly before her execution she is given another chance at life: if she accepts a position as the ruler’s food taster, she would be allowed to live. Without other real choices, she accepts and is quickly brought into the household of the Commander, the ruler of Ixia.

Valek, who is the Commander’s right hand man, teaches different poisons to Yelena who must be able to detect them by taste and smell. At the same time, he deliberately gives her poison. In order to avoid a messy death, Yelena must take the antidote every day. She is furious but Valek informs her coolly that it’s the only way to make sure that the convicted murderer, Yelena, will be loyal to her new employer.

Most of the people in the household are indifferent or downright hostile to her but Yelena finds a few friends which is a good thing because she feels that she can’t be safe. The man she killed was the son of General Brazell and the General is determined to get his revenge one way or another. Also, Yelena finds strange powers inside her and in Ixia all magic users are executed.

At the same time, Yelena becomes interested in Valek and his past. It’s rumored that Valek is the Commander’s assassin and he killed the old King on behalf of the Commander.

This book has gotten a lot of attention from the romance readers but I found the romance-side to be quite understated; barely even a sub-plot until near the end. I was also quite puzzled why Yelena would be attracted to the stone-cold Valek when there were some more palatable men in the story.

The world-building was very interesting. This isn’t a medieval world. Although fighting is done with knives and swords, there’s also a mention of guns and the medical technology is far better. I was quite a bit surprised though that bows were apparently used as melee weapons.

The magic seems to be mostly psionic: sending and receiving thoughts, using songs or sounds to confuse the enemies. Apparently, it’s an inborn talent and can’t be learned.

The culture is pretty interesting. The Commander and his troops killed the previous king and now rule the land. Ixia has been split into Military Districts and each General rules over one District while the Commander ruler the Generals. Also, the Commander chooses his successor. He set up the Code of Behavior which must be followed without exception. According to it, killing another human isn’t acceptable in any circumstances, everyone is assigned a job, and very few are allowed to move from one District to another. To me, this brought to mind a Communist state combined with absolute ruler ship; the rules work as long as the man on top is a benevolent tyrant.

By the way, the women in Ixia can take up about any job they want but apparently, they don’t hold position of power; there are some female soldiers but not female Generals. However, since under the previous King women had to pretty much stay in the kitchens, the power imbalance is likely a reflection of the short time women have been able to choose their jobs. However, there weren’t many sexist attitudes among the characters.

Yelena is a pleasant main character. She had reasons for killing the General’s son and they are shown slowly in short flash-backs early on. She’s determined, clever, and compassionate. She’s also not a lone wolf; when she finds out that many of the people of the household think that they shouldn’t befriend her because she’s likely to die soon, she becomes depressed. When some of the people become her friends, she’s glad. She’s doing her best coping with her emerging powers, her status are a pardoned murderer, and with being poisoned.

The secondary characters are quite good. I especially enjoyed the soldiers friends (or perhaps lovers? It wasn’t said) Ari and Janko, and their friendly banter. The amicable cook Rand was also interesting and I liked what Snyder did with him. Valek is pretty much too distant and aloof for me to form much of an opinion about him.

The plot was centered on politics and intrigue but had quite a lot of action and character interaction as well. A very good balance.

Overall: I enjoyed the book but since the most interesting characters aren’t likely to be in the next books, it’s going to take me some time to continue with the series.