I received a digital advance reader’s copy (ARC) of A Magic Steeped In Poison by Judy I. Lin. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In A Magic Steeped In Poison, Ning has been wracked with guilt ever since pouring the cup of tea that killed her mother and nearly killed her sister. Never mind that she didn’t know it was poisoned; as the daughter of a shénnóng-shi (master of the magical art of tea-making), she should have known better. Now, her sister is dying slowly. So when Ning hears of a competition to choose the next shénnóng-shi for the emperor, she knows this is her chance to receive a favor that could save her sister. So she travels to the imperial city, but soons finds a complex web of politics, deception, and danger. And she wonders if she is skilled enough to survive it all.
I quite enjoyed this story! Ning is a sympathetic protagonist, brave and caring for her sister. I also liked the bond she formed with her fellow competitor Lian, and the relationship with Zhen was really intriguing. In fact, Zhen, along with Small Wu and Qing’er, is one of my favorite characters. I didn’t really care either way about Kang, or the love story between him and Ning, but I didn’t dislike him either, so I suppose that counts for something.
I rather wish we could have learned a little more about the tea magic. I get that it draws a link between the tea maker and the drinker, but I wanted to know more about how it works. It felt rather intuitive for Ning, which was interesting and honestly pretty cool to see it play out and for her to discover new skills, but I still felt like I didn’t know as much as I wanted to. That said, this is an intriguing magic system. Really, the idea of “magic tea competition” was all I needed to know before I started reading this book.
Some of the court politics—though not heavy in detail or complexity—were not the most interesting for me. I think the only time politics has really been compelling to me in fantasy was in Mistborn, and it’s really hard for anyone to top that series. Here, I didn’t feel that into all the maneuvering and lies. It didn’t help that I had a hard time keeping track of which minister/chancellor/whatever-title-dude was which.
That said, the last few chapters of this book were so exciting! I didn’t know what to expect, and it did leave me rather intrigued about what will happen in the concluding volume of this duology. And the very last scene was just rude; how dare you end it like that? I mean, I know there’s a second book, so that takes away some of the suspense, but still! (I’m not actually that mad.) Luckily, the second book comes out in August—a smart way to release a duology, in my opinion—so I don’t have to wait long. Because I guess I just decided I’m going to read book two, which I wasn’t sure about at the beginning of this review.
In the end, A Magic Steeped In Poison is a good debut novel with an intriguing and vivid world. Inspired by Asian mythology but filled with a clever magic, this is a steadily paced adventure through courtly intrigue and magical competitions. The characters didn’t always work and the romance felt lukewarm to me, but some of the twists and developments especially toward the end kept me engaged. And, apparently, interested enough to plan to read the next book!
A Magic Steeped In Poison will be published on March 29th, 2022!