A Magic Steeped in Poison (The Book of Tea #1) by Judy I. Lin
Published by Feiwel & Friends
Young Adult Fantasy
Release Date : March 29th 2022
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.
“Grief has a taste, bitter and lingering, but so soft it sometimes disguises itself as sweetness.”
A Magic Steeped in Poison is a young adult Chinese inspired fantasy with intriguing tea magic, political machinations, and potential that was sadly wasn’t used to its fullest.
A Magic Steeped in Poison is the first book to The Book of Tea duology both releasing within the same year. This book first caught my eye when the cover was revealed in late 2021. The cover is done by Sija Hong. It is absolutely stunning; from the colours, illustration, and design. Though I didn’t cave in until about three months after its release date to buy the book.
With young adult fantasy I am always a bit cautious and wary. In 2021 I keep getting disappointed because they all have beautiful covers and interesting premise but when it comes to execution it is questionable. After reading reviews from friends that can only be described as a mix bag I decided to try and read this duology. I even signed up for a blog tour for the second book releasing August 2022, A Venom Dark and Sweet.
I used to look at my hands with pride. Now, all I can think is, “These are the hands that buried my mother.”
The story of this duology follows the main protagonist Ning. A young girl that just recently lost her mother to poisoning and is trying to find a way to save her dying younger sister. Ning decides to runaway from home setting forth to the imperial city to join a competition to find the kingdom’s greatest shennong-shi—masters of the ancient and magical art of tea-making. There Ning competes with the kingdoms best tea makers, befriend a fellow competitor, beat the odds, and uncover a dark scheme plaguing the kingdom that is possibly linked to her mother’s death.
In the middle of the competition Ning meets a handsome mysterious boy at the market. This boy thought to be a son of a merchant acquainted himself with Ning and forms a deep connection with her. But something about this boy nags at Ning’s heart strings and occupies her mind that this boy is hiding something from her. What he is hiding, Ning will find it soon enough.
“How can I give another part of myself to someone else, when I already have so little to give?”
A Magic Steeped in Poison a brilliant and fresh debut by Judy I. Lyn that weaves Chinese mythos and the art of tea making into the plot of the story. Judy’s writing is vivid when it comes to world building and consistent throughout the book. My favorite parts has to be the descriptions of food. Judy really goes into detail of the dishes served in the story down to the garnish. I fear I got really hungry every time I read this book. The themes about family and camaraderie is the main take away that fuels the story. The relationships between the characters are explored deeply except the one between Ning and the boy, that’s the only exception. I will explain later on in this review.
The magic in the story has to be one of the most intricate ones that I have ever read in a young adult book. Even though the magic is a simple technically speaking, with shennong-shi being able to imbue physical strength into someone’s body, heal, being able to channel the patient’s sickness/ailments experiencing first hand their pain, some times able to manipulate emotion of patients, create illusions, and so many more through tea.
The brew they make can result in many forms of magic that solely comes from the shennong-shi. There is also a checks and balance in the magic system that takes toll on the shennong-shi if they reach a certain subjective threshold. Though the magic system is still looser and forgiving compared to a strict 50:50, action v. consequence, magic system. It is more 70:30 as I observed throughout the book in my opinion.
Tea for me is home, is joy, is family.
The characterization in A Magic Steeped in Poison is sadly quite surface level and one noted. I say this frankly because Ning, the protagonist, is like any other YA protagonist though the difference is that Ning is given multiple chances to fumble her way into victory. There are certain parts in her journey that didn’t make sense that ties in with the whole plot progression of the story.
Lin added a lot of scenes involving political machinations and scheming that disturbed the competition. But the way these scenes are written is blatantly enabling Ning to progress in the competition on the express train. Once I’ve read how the first round ended I just had a feeling its gonna keep happening in the other rounds. Its as though Lin is juggling competition and political intrigue separately even though both can intertwine and add a lot of stakes to the story.
“She is my family, and they tried to hurt me through her. I’ve tried to send her away for her own protection, and she crossed the entire empire to save me. I will never leave her again.”
Another thing that bothered me is how Ning is dragged into the political scene. Ning is an amateur shennong-shi, lets say it as it is, she is an amateur that learned the art from observing her mother. She refers to her mother a lot in the story remembering her advices and stories. It is too obvious how predictable Ning is put in the situations she’s in. All of a sudden she knows what she is doing, no longer clumsy, has a “natural” talent for the art, etc. She seems to able to skirt her way out of things so easily every time. It’s just frustrating as reader to witness it, because it feels like the build up and stakes are so low. Honestly, the climax didn’t pay off nor was it satisfying.
Now to the main love interest, Kang. His characterization lacked a lot of dimensions. It isn’t clear what his motivation is or his intent throughout the book. It seems as though he is skirting between betraying Ning and not betraying her. And it is reflected through Lin’s writing whenever his character pops up. His words are wholesome and pure yet his position in the story is a red flag. An obvious red flag. I don’t understand his purpose aside from being the heartthrob, he didn’t add anything either to the politics or to Ning’s character growth.
“But the distance between us is too far, as vast as the divide between brothers who fought for a throne, or gods who tore apart a continent.”
Final thoughts, A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin had a lot of potential as a story with it’s unique magic system, interesting premise, characters that have potential to grow and develop, and many more. Yet the execution lacked finesse and a bit of ruthlessness. I understand characters are something authors hold close to them but in this story, in my opinion, they are coddled. This review is a subjective point of view from me and readers that have the same taste as me proceed with caution.
If you are a reader that read more young adult books and love young adult fantasy I think you will like this book more than me. But if you are like me and you read more adult fantasy that like to see good characterization in a story you can either like this book or not like it.
I still highly recommend it because I really like the magic system that is presented as it is one of the best I read in YA. I hope the sequel will conclude this story with a bang because this first book did disappoint me a bit.