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A Magic Steeped in Poison (Judy I. Lin) – Book Review

A Magic Steeped in Poison is the debut novel of author Judy I. Lin, who has crafted a truly breathtaking world based upon Chinese culture and mythology, delivering a unique and wonderful magic system that not only makes this book stand out, but will also have you craving a good cup of tea.

The novel begins when Ning packs her bags to leave her family home. Having grown up in a small village with her mother, father, and her sister, Shu, her life has been forever changed now that her mother has died after drinking poisoned tea. Even worse than that, the same poison is currently killing her younger sister. Despite the best efforts of her father, the village doctor, there seems to be nothing that can be done to cure the poison that looks set to claim another life from their family.

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Ning, however, has come up with a plan to try and save Shu. The capital is currently holding a competition to crown a new shennong-shi, a magic user that is able to brew different teas to craft spells, combat poisons, and perform amazing feats. The winner of the competition will be given a place of honour among society as the shennong-shi for the royal family, but will also be granted access to cures and resources that Ning believes would allow her to save her sister. Stealing off into the night, Ning makes her way to the capital where she’s able to use the invitation sent to her mother – who was a shennong-shi and taught Ning – to enter the competition.

However, now that Ning is part of the competition she learns that she is not only having to compete against other, better trained and more well connected opponents, but that she has entered a world of court intrigue, double crosses, and plots. With assassins targeting the princess, the Emperor locked away inside his castle, and a poison plot claiming the lives of people across the kingdom, Ning realises that it may not be as easy to save her family as she first hoped.

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A Magic Steeped in Poison feels like multiple stories all rolled into one. On one hand it has a central competition that feels like The Apprentice, with various competitors fighting to prove themselves and to win their prize. There’s also the court intrigue and villainous plots from stories like A Song of Ice and Fire with various ministers and court officials all out to advance themselves. And there’s some romance thrown in for good measure as Ning begins to fall for a dangerous, dashing young man with a dark secret. And on top of all of this, the book gives us one of the most interesting and engaging magic systems that I can remember coming across, one that feels wholly unique to this world.

The magic of the story is tightly connected to tea. The shennong-shi create their magic by carefully crafting the right teas, picking the ingredients for the different qualities that they bring to the table. They have to think about how these items interact with each other, taking care not to brew something where one ingredient drowns out another, ruining the intended outcome. They then ceremonially brew and pour the teas, and breathe magic into them using their inherent powers. It’s a complex and subtle art, one that requires years of training and careful study, as well as some natural talent too. Ning is probably the least experienced person in the competition, yet has a natural flair for the process that allows her to not only compete with the others, but to stand above them at times too.

There are multiple instances throughout the book that we see hints of Ning’s magic at work without the use of teas, such as her listening to the flow of the world around her, taking notice of nature and asking it for guidance to find certain objects. The book makes hints that whilst the teas are the most obvious and practised form of magic in this world they’re not the only one, and that there is more beauty and horror hiding just out of sight. Because of this, it’s one of the more subtly engrossing fantasy worlds I’ve read. It draws you in slowly, and will occasionally add more elements into the mix, though it never seems to want to overshadow the tea brewing itself. Much like the shennong-shi crafting their teas, it seems like Lin has carefully crafted and curated what we learn of this world to give us the best result.

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Whilst the book takes some chances and does some unique things with some of the elements, others will be comfortingly familiar. The book follows structures that will be recognisable to those who’ve read a lot of Young Adult literature, with a few of the more popular tropes thrown in there too. It could be easy to dismiss a book that uses familiar structures and tropes as not trying, or not being creative; but that’s certainly not the case here. Lin does some things that may be expected with the formula, but it never feels derivative or hackneyed, and instead it puts enough freshness and new ideas into it that it instead feels reassuringly familiar.

The book is packed with interesting characters, and by the time it ends you’ll probably have had your opinions on quite a few of them change more than once. Lin’s cast of characters are always more complex than they first appear, and have ulterior motives, hide their true intentions, and often put on a front in the imperial court. The result is that you can never really feel too complacent, and that you end up having to take careful note of everything you read as you never know how the plot and characters are going to shift.

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My only criticism of the book is that this is a first part, the beginning entry in The Book of Tea series. I enjoyed the book, and when it came to an end with the story unresolved, and me unable to jump straight into the next volume, I was a bit disappointed. But that’s the sign that a book has done its job well, when it comes to an end and you’re thirsty for more. The book ends with things to be continued, but it’s still a wonderful, contained story that you can pick up and enjoy all on its own. Fingers crossed fans won’t have to wait long for the next instalment though.

A Magic Steeped in Poison is a wonderful debut packed full of interesting and intriguing things for readers to get lost in. The cover is absolutely gorgeous, and is a wonderful work of art in itself. If you love fantasy stories but want to try something that feels fresh and original, this is the book for you.

A Magic Steeped in Poison is out on 6th September from Titan Books.

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