I used to look at my hands with pride. Now all I can think is, “These are the hands that buried my mother.”
For Ning, the only thing worse than losing her mother is knowing that it’s her own fault. She was the one who unknowingly brewed the poison tea that killed her—the poison tea that now threatens to also take her sister, Shu.
When Ning hears of a competition to find the kingdom’s greatest shennong-shi—masters of the ancient and magical art of tea-making—she travels to the imperial city to compete. The winner will receive a favor from the princess, which may be Ning’s only chance to save her sister’s life.
But between the backstabbing competitors, bloody court politics, and a mysterious (and handsome) boy with a shocking secret, Ning might actually be the one in more danger.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. All thoughts are my own.
A Magic Steeped in Poison caught my eye way back when, while it was still going by an old title, because a novel set in ancient China with tea-inspired magic? Hell fucking yes. And then Sija Hong’s beautiful cover was released and I fell in love all over again. Just go look at the full textless spread. It’s breathtaking. As always, I am leery of YA debuts but author Judy I Lin makes a solid showing in A Magic Steeped in Poison.
What I have to comment on first are the descriptors throughout this book. The prose in A Magic Steeped in Poison is a symphony for the senses. Every tea, every food dish, the bustle of the markets and busy kitchens, elegant poise of the palaces, and the details of the clothes, all described in such rich detail I truly felt transported. With the emphasis on tea in this story, I really admire Lin’s efforts to show a diverse range of teas and their manners of preparation, from all different regions of ancient China. The integration of tea with magic felt so deeply intertwined, each brew of tea has its own unique properties, with their consumption almost ceremonial, story-like.
The plot of A Magic Steeped in Poison is fairly straightforward. Ning, a young girl from a small village, travels to the capital to compete in a national tea brewing competition as a shennongshi – in hopes of winning a to cure her ailing sister back at home. The magic competition elements, with the young naive inexperienced country girl competing against pedigreed city-born competitors, and the overall plot is fairly play-by-numbers for a YA novel. Yet, the execution, plot twists, and worldbuilding were well done that I enjoyed the overall story.
For me, the weakest part were the characters. As mentioned, Ning fits a fairly common archetype of naive female MC who stumbles her way to the top via pure determination. The supporting cast I found rather one-note, relegated to either friend, person who helps Ning at a critical junction, or rich asshole. The one exception to this is Kang, exiled prince and Ning’s somewhat love-interest. I’ve heard he’s the main character of book two and I’m excited to see where his story goes.
Overall, I rate this book a 3.5/5. A Magic Steeped in Poison is a solid debut YA novel, incorporating tea magic in a Song Dynasty inspired setting with absolutely beautiful writing.
r/Fantasy 2021-22 Bingo Squares:
- Set in Asia (hard mode)
- 1st person POV
- Debut Novel