A grim circumstance, a handsome exile, and a threat to an empire. In Judy I. Lin’s debut novel, A Magic Steeped In Poison, we’re privy to the demanding trials Ning has to face in order for the chance to become a recognized shennong-shi, or divine master of the ancient and magical art of tea-making. If she succeeds, she will earn a favor from the princess. Will it be enough to save her sister’s life? Can she overcome the obstacles of not only the trial, but the dangerous events that unfold?
In an incredible feat from a first-time author, we are graced with not only A Magic Steeped in Poison, but a quick wait for book #2 of The Book of Tea series, A Venom Dark and Sweet. Normally I’m one to wait for a series to finish before diving in. (I’m overly patient because I’m impatient; I like to read one book after another when it’s in a series.) However, after stumbling across this book, I was compelled to get my hands on it sooner rather than later. Five months isn’t too horrible a wait. It doesn’t matter whether you wait to grab both in August or pick them up as they come, you should definitely add them to your list. Once the second one is out, don’t be surprised when you see a follow-up review from me.
So, how did Ning find herself in such a harrowing situation? The catalyst begins with a fateful brew, made by the hands of Ning herself. In a single sip, she loses her mother and finds her sister’s life at risk due to a poisoned tea brick. Though no fault of her own, and likely directly the result of the infamous and mysterious Shadow, it’s knowledge that plagues our protagonist and provides momentum to the story. Will Ning redeem herself and save a life most precious to her? What more is at stake?
I appreciate that we’re not jumping around or switching perspectives. It’s chronologically situated on a steady-moving timeline, so it never drags. Moments between characters are constantly perpetuating the narrative and don’t feel stagnant. Even when we encounter more simplistic action sequences (shopping at the market, lunch with other characters), we’re still being pulled forward in the story without feeling like it’s forcefully placed and fabricated. More eventful, dramatic instances aren’t jarring and out of place because of the consistent momentum we see throughout the book. The way it’s crafted feels almost like an honest retelling of events, not a story driven by the author’s need to expose the plot.
The plot itself is layered and complex. There’s a lot going on, all seemingly interwoven on a macro and micro scale. The empire is threatened by a shadowy figure seemingly to blame for poisoning the denizens across the land–including, perhaps, Ning’s family. There’s an air of deception and unrest throughout the empire with multiple assassination attempts on the princess, and threats to the current status quo that trickle down and instill a general unease nationwide. That unrest is mirrored in Ning’s own personal struggles of deciding who to trust with what information. As a result, I was nervously covering the tensest moments, so my eyes didn’t wander ahead in anticipation of the outcome.
This book is a gorgeous world to get whisked away into. Details unfurl like the dried tea leaves steeping in the cup I made myself every time I sat down to read. (It seemed an appropriate ritual.) It features vibrant depictions of smells, tastes, and color. Lin intentionally flavors every scene with the sights and smells that make you want to take in a deep breath as if they aren’t just words on paper. For you Studio Ghibli or Shokugeki no Soma fans out there, reader be warned–the way Lin describes food is reminiscent of these master food visualizers. I felt whole and connected to this world and lamented having to leave it (thank the gods for a sequel). It truly lives up to its beautifully evocative cover art.
If the details aren’t what keeps you thumbing for the next page, the charming relationships will. Along Ning’s journey, she interacts with a diverse spectrum of people–commonfolk, scholars, snively competition, fickle advisors, royalty. Even the rival interactions between persons of status or threat are intriguing and rewarding. It’s the kind of book you scrunch your nose and huff at or find yourself audibly chortling with a gleeful smile. Dialog between characters is endearing and leaves you wanting for the next interaction. Even the unspoken connections characters have with each other add a level of realness, making the story more and more enveloping.
Lin has a clearly developed voice that I find delightfully unique. I often find authors latching on to favorite words or stylistic choices and tropes, but I felt as though Lin couldn’t limit herself. Though that may speak more to the fact it’s her first published work, it’s really refreshing to read and I hope it’s a trend that remains in her writing.
Truth be told, it’s difficult to pinpoint things I’m not particularly a fan of in the book. The chapters are well-paced and I obviously care a lot for the imagery and world-building. I’m not entirely sure I have a specific negative critique and I generally rate this book very well. As always, my aim is not to spoil, so I’m not delving into some of the intrigue I’ve alluded to: i.e. that handsome exile. Instead, I implore you to discover that relationship as it’s relayed in the book, the author will do a much better job at it, I promise.
A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin is available for purchase now at your local independent bookstore or wherever fine books are sold.