Blending threads of mythology with courageous heroines and hints of romance against a mysterious fantastical backdrop inspired by folklore has recently found a huge space on bookshelves, and deservedly so. Whether it’s the recent YA fantasy, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh that retells a Korean folktale or the recent adult debut, Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan that is inspired by the Chinese legend of the moon goddess Chang’e. It’s time to make space on the shelf for A Magic Steeped in Poison — front-facing, of course, for the stunning cover illustrated by Sija Hong deserves all the attention.
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Ning, a commoner in a village of the homely Su province, will do anything to save her sister’s life, including competing in a brutal magical tea-brewing competition. But the art of tea-making — an ancient magic of Shennong — no longer brings pride to her, only grief. The pain of losing her mother to a tea that Ning herself unknowingly brewed with poisoned leaves is insurmountable, and the guilt of having threatened the life of her younger sister with the same tea leaves her desperate to fetch a chance of turning things around. So when she receives an invitation to compete in the kingdom’s tea steeping competition and potentially win a royal favour, the acceptance isn’t surprising. It is this fairly immediate and passionate response to saving her loved one that establishes Ning as a protagonist of this debut that the Taiwanese-Canadian author rightly once said has “girls ready to burn down the world for their families”.
Holding tightly onto hope and the magic in her hands, this determined heroine who is easy to instantly root for, travels to the rich imperial city of Jia. But with a rising rebellion led by an old banished prince wanting to claim the throne for himself and a heavy yet palatable dose of court intrigue and royal politics, the kingdom isn’t the easiest to navigate. Not to mention the betrayals, unethical tactics, and ruthless contenders that make the competition a high-stakes one. The backstabbing dynamics are evidently inspiration from Chinese dramas; the struggle against oppressive regimes reminded me of Jade Fire Gold by June C.L. Tan —in a good way because I love the trope and any number of books exploring it is less. And while the sabotages are thorns in Ning’s way to victory, an encounter with a handsome stranger further complicates her life.
These components impress even more when the prose paints each scene with a particular softness that almost reads like a marvellous dream. Intended or not, this praise even reflects in the lulling, romantic cover. The lyrical writing draws a sensory world with descriptions of cultural clues and infuses (pun very much intended) Chinese legends to build a detailed backdrop. Though, the aspect worth appreciating the most is the creation of a magic system based on ‘tea’ instead of the usual ‘chi’ that many fantasy tales based on East-Asian mythology are driven by.
It’s a relief to see the tea as a central force that consistently contributes to the story — whether when showcasing the diversity of regions within this world based on the different ways of brewing tea or when the magic system revolves around it: how you can relive memories or even break into someone’s mind through a magically brewed tea. Tea is truly synonymous to Asian culture so the refreshing and fascinating system of sorcery based on it definitely excites. In the midst of the competition, assassination attempts against the princess continue to intrigue; also greasing the plot enough for it to be a fast-paced thread that sits well with what is usually expected from a YA fantasy.
Judy I. Lin masters the act of not lifting the curtain all the way up. While various facets of the magic system and the major plotline are unravelled throughout this start to a duology that she says is “about leaving home to discover yourself, and finding the strength to continue even when the path is hard”, a lot will still make you crave resolution. This obviously translates into a cliffhanger that makes it almost impossible to not pick up the sequel, A Venom Dark and Sweet. Overall, this epic fantasy is lush in the word’s true sense —instead of as an overused adjective used to describe fantasy tales by authors of colour, but I digress— and unfolds in a beautiful world where treachery and betrayal brews in cups of aromatic magic.
A Magic Steeped in Poison, Judy I. Lin is out now!
Feiwel & Friends, March 2022
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