A stark and oddly beautiful contrast, and an incredible follow up to A Magic Steeped in Poison. This is your official fair warning that this review is for a sequel! Should you not want to read the inevitable spoilers I reference from the first book, stop now or forever hush your disdain for me. Go ahead and grab a copy from your local bookstore, read it first, then consider reading this follow-up (while A Venom Dark and Sweet is on the way, obviously). Not convinced you should read either? Well, you should. Still not convinced? Check out my review of book one, past me went through great lengths to make it a priority.
We left off in the thick of conspiracy, connivery, and a court coup (probably). Our protagonist, Ning, is on the run and desperate to save her life, her family, and the dethroned crown princess while struggling with the overlording forces that be. Will she recover from and triumph through the insurrection? What remains of the relationships she’s made in the palace? Is Kang’s betrayal something she can come to terms with? Something she could forgive? With so many biting questions, we’re marching through an unwitting wild country, author Judy I. Lin serving as our stoic general.
When it comes to reading books in a series, I suffer (as I believe many do) from the jarring passage of time between release dates. Fortunately, Judy I. Lin swiftly whisks readers back into the thick of things in this sequel. She thoroughly invested into the separation of the two books while also making it seamless. Lin used this shift in time and place as a means to not only “close” the story and lead up in Part I, but also as a tonal shift in narrative and narrative style in Part II. This second book, while still illustorially rich, felt as though the color had been seeped out. The much darker tone we’re hit with is companioned with imagery that leaves you gutted and uncertain, much like the characters we’re following.
As with the last book, the world crafted around us feels familiar, all while being foreign. There’s an uncanny air of death and uncertainty, portrayed in emotions and actions, but also in scenery she depicts. Everything feels monochromatic, a world of light vs. dark. Once bright displays of colors and smells turned dirty and muted, much like the dichotomy between palace life in the first book to the rural life in this new space we find ourselves in in book two.
Much like the dark and lethargic imagery and context of this book, the pacing drags, heavy-footed, on, but… in a positive way. That “trudge” fits what’s happening and only serves to heighten the narrative. That dual perspective I think also aided in letting us not get too “stuck” within a single perspective. Those switches happened at well-thought out points and offered reprieve to dramatic and tense conflict.
Alongside the shift in imagery and pacing, we’re also given a new literary mechanic that doesn’t appear in the first: dual perspective. This is a very common trope in modern literature, and for good reason. But, it’s one that not everyone can execute effectively or even usefully. So, when first glimpsing into Kang’s perspective, I approached nervously (ok but also with excitement because, well, Kang). However, Lin does wonders with this narrative device and delivers not only a tactile means of driving the plot, but an invaluable insight to his internal struggles. It enriches the reading experience and makes us rethink Ning’s perspective and struggles. The author took a risk doing this; there was a chance that divulging Kang’s point of view could soil any pull we had for him and his intentions. However, once again, Lin continues to soar past my expectations and maintained my affection for him and made me dearly hope for somewhat of a redemption arc. Does he get that? Well you have to read to find out, I’m no spoilsport, but let me just say that this literary device certainly does not go to waste.
Getting to delve into the new realm of Kang’s inner thoughts was a surprising aspect I wasn’t expecting to experience and felt was a well-placed gem. Not long after the introduction of a dual perspective, we’re walked into a treasure trove of lore. The concept/existence of gods, their origin, and the influence they have over the magic in this realm is yet another aspect we get to see in greater detail. It’s something Lin touches on lightly in the first book and something I was practically begging for in the sequel. We’re given the rich lore behind the fantastical essence of nature, magic, gods, and fiends. While the first book felt rooted in a plane similar to the real world (with added touches of magic), we get a deeper understanding of how influential and powerful magic really is. It’s yet another shift that pulls us away from the scenery and background setting of book one to the heavier concepts and storytelling we’re facing in the sequel. It genuinely feels like living the makings of folklore through characters we are near and dear to.
Once again, the portrayal of relationships in this book feel incredibly genuine. Those moments of tension that have us cursing choices a character makes only prove the humanness of each character. Watching Ning and Shu’s sisterhood in this book is a beautiful and heart wrenching aspect that I was dying to see. It adds depth and ups the ante of what’s at stake. Seeing her typically sharp decision-making get stunted and fumbling in order to do what’s right by her family gives us this complex dynamic that very quickly integrates Shu into the narrative despite only really having a presence in the second book.
To be honest, this book was exactly what I expected in terms of the beautiful storytelling, breathtaking imagery, and effortless character relations that made me fall in love with book one. It was a delight to read and on that point alone, I would say it’s well worth the read. If you’re here prior to reading book one, wow ok you’re one of those but also please go and read both despite any spoilers I may have given/alluded to. In terms of what I expected to happen in the story, there’s really nothing that could have prepared me. It gripped me to the very end and it’s one of the few titles I have cried while reading. Judy I. Lin, if you’re reading this, thank you and please let me know when I have the pleasure of reading your work again.
A Venom Dark and Sweet by Judy I. Lin is available for purchase now at your local independent bookstore or wherever fine books are sold.