A Magic Steeped in Poison is a brew that I’ve been eagerly anticipating since it was first announced. As a Taiwanese American, I was really excited to learn of a YA fantasy book by a Taiwanese Canadian author. In the Acknowledgements, author Judy Lin thanks the authors who paved the way for her to write an Asian/Chinese-inspired fantasy. This reminded me of our 2017 Group Discussion of Want by Cindy Pon, an incredible sci-fi thriller set in near-future Taiwan. It’s been exciting to see more and more Taiwanese authors, and Asian authors in general, flourish in the YA space over the years. And with that said, I’ll get off my soapbox. Read on for our discussion!
A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin
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.
NOTE: Spoilers will appear in our discussion!
But before we can really dig into the story, let’s spend a moment admiring that gorgeous, gorgeous cover…
Jessica: Honestly, I could stare at the cover for hours. And the endpapers on the inside are beautiful too.
K. Imani: It really is a beautiful cover. I love all the beautiful colors, the swirl of the colors which is reminiscent of steam rising from tea, different images, just beautiful.
Crystal: The cover truly is beautiful and I enjoyed finding the many bits and pieces from the story. On the back the snakes Ning saw in the steam from the tea even make an appearance.
Audrey: Agreed, the cover is gorgeous! There are so many great details hidden in the art, and I keep coming back to it to find something new to love about it. (Right now, I’m focused on Ning’s hair ornaments!)
The worldbuilding in A Magic Steeped in Poison includes a number of elements, including the tea magic system, the court politics, the mystery of the Shadow, and a long cultural history of poetry and art. What stood out to you about the worldbuilding? How did it influence your reading experience?
K. Imani: What really stuck with me was how closely the making of tea was tied to magic. The way that different style of teas produced different types of magic (and different effects of magic) rivaled to me how different teas can be used for different methods of healing in our world. I loved the description of how the teas were made and could clearly picture it after having experienced tea ceremony when I was in China. I will admit, I want to try some of the teas described in the book. I also loved the various folklore stories that were woven throughout the novel and how some of those stories related to the making of tea. Ning is always quoting either a whole or parts of mythological stories and having the stories woven as a sense of Ning’s sense of self, sense of family, really brought the novel alive to me.
Audrey: One of the things I really enjoyed was how many layers there were to Ning and her world. Even though we spent most of the book focused on the competition happening within the palace, Judy Lin took the time to develop characters that would help expand the scope of the world. Ning had a fairly straightforward “rural outsider comes to big city” background—but she wasn’t the only “outsider” in the palace, and because of that, we were able to get additional glimpses of the wider world. Within the palace, the court intrigue wasn’t limited to the princess and court officials—the servants played their own parts, too, and the movements of different factions hinted at years of prior history. It’s so much fun when a world feels like it has been well-lived in, rather than just being a shiny backdrop for the main characters.
Crystal: As a person who pretty much drinks tea every day, that was the aspect that really caught and kept my attention. The stories, the routines, the many varieties of teas and combinations are just part of the many things to learn about the serving and drinking of tea. There is so much within the process from the containers the tools and teas are stored in to the processes, Ning has much to remember and continue to learn.
Jessica: While the book takes place in a fantasy setting, it felt deeply familiar to me. The tea, the poetry, the Chinese poetry, and most of all the food felt like home to me. This level of detail and this sense of familiarity is what I loved about reading Want too. My mouth was definitely watering over all the dishes mentioned – the sticky rice dumplings and lion’s head meatballs, the pastries, all of it. I also loved the tea magic system. It perfectly matched the beautiful, atmospheric tone of the writing.
Ning sets out to save her sister’s life, in defiance of her father. Along the way, she finds herself in a new found family of palace kitchen staff and friends. What did you take away from Ning’s familial bonds? Was there anything about them that surprised or struck you?
Jessica: What surprised me the most, in the best possible way, was how every single character Ning encounters has their own inner life, and many characters showed Ning kindness in big ways and small – from the mother on the ferry, to Ning’s friend Lian, to the palace kitchen staff and the Peony entertainer who holds Ning back and saves her from being thrown out of the competition. Even Steward Yang, who in most other novels would likely have been cast as a mean-spirited minor villain, is someone with her own motivations and worries. Steward Yang ends up sharing memories of Ning’s mother with her and shows her kindness as well. There was a sense of community and family wherever Ning went. It was a really warm and comforting experience, even as the tension and the stakes rose in the story.
K. Imani: So often when you read stories of the protagonist going on a journey alone, they find 1 friend and that is it. This was not the case with Ning, in that she found a sense of community and a connection to her family. I absolutely loved that Ning made friends, who didn’t feel flat at all, and became an integral part of her success. I agree with you, Jessica, in how Steward Yang was written. I loved that nice little twist that allowed Ning to find connection to her mother’s history through Yang. It brought a smile to my face because that beautiful moment between the two helped Ning begin to heal and begin to find her voice.
Audrey: I was also very much a fan of Steward Yang! I was so worried about her being a petty sort of villain when I thought several of the other competitors were already filling that role, so it was a relief when she got a mini arc of her own. It was great to see Ning develop a little supportive community in the palace, too. As much as I enjoy a solo protagonist saving the world, it is always a delight when there are other people to help them out. And on a meta level, I absolutely adored that Ning needed both her family and the knowledge and experience she gained while building her new community in order to save the day.
Crystal: Though Ning and her father don’t seem to fully understand each other, she has grown up with love for her family and the love she experienced with her mother and sister and part of the reason that she is able to make connections with people easily. She doesn’t have blind trust in all, but does give people the benefit of the doubt, at least in the beginning as she is getting to know folks.
In the first round of the competition, Ning is accused of quoting a revolutionary poet. While Ning didn’t intend to quote a revolutionary, by the end, she does speak up about inequality and fight back in her own way. Did any of these themes and Ning’s own journey resonate with you?
Jessica: I loved the role that art plays throughout the story – the art of tea ceremony, the power of poetry to spark revolutionary thoughts, and Shu’s embroidery being both an inspiration and a solution. It really speaks to how important art is, in all its many forms. It also reminded me of how poets, writers, and artists helped to spark cultural and social change in Chinese and Taiwanese history. Art has power!
K. Imani: I really liked that she didn’t initially make the connection between the poet and his politics because she was raised to believe his politics so the poet was just speaking her life. Like I mentioned earlier with her connection to Yang, when she realizes the deeper meaning of the poet’s words, she realizes how much her family really prepared her to fight for what she believed in. I also feel like the realization that art can bring change also gave her courage to continue in the competition as the way tea and magic was described was art itself and she realized that.
Audrey: What I related to most was that Ning didn’t start her adventure for any grand ideals—she did it on the slimmest hope she might be able to save her sister. She knew things could be terrible where she lived when the year was bad and the taxes were high. She’d seen the effects of a bad system in her life, and while she did what she could, she didn’t have the power or opportunity to really change much. Then she got into the royal palace, and for the first time she could use what power she had to influence people and events for what she hoped was the better. I loved that a lot.
Crystal: This really underscored how she had been raised away from the palace. She knew the effects of politics firsthand, but how people engaged in politics was not something she’d had to witness or worry about as an individual. This allowed her to go ahead and say things that may have seemed dangerous, but they were also true. It was interesting to see her become more and more aware of the machinations happening in high places and also learning how to navigate that and see how to make changes happen.
We touched on reading experience earlier, but let’s return to that. What was your reading experience with A Magic Steeped in Poison? What did you think of the direction of the story?
K. Imani: One of the reasons I love reading fantasy is the ability to get lost in a completely different world and that is how I felt reading Magic Steeped in Poison. I was traveling while I read the book but I was never “in my airplane seat” as I was with Ning at the palace, with Ning as she and Kang drank the Golden Key and experienced…well, I don’t want to give away spoilers. I love when books can transport me to another place and I lose myself to the world the author created.
Audrey: I had a lot of fun reading the book over the weekend. I’ve got a huge soft spot for court politics/intrigue, so this book kept me very entertained. I also loved the descriptions whenever Ning used her magic—it was such a new form of magic to me that I really slowed down to savor those passages.
Jessica: For me, it was a quiet, calming experience, but one that left me thoughtful and refreshed. Kind of like a really good cup of tea on a cold day! The competition and plot twists kept me reading through the night, but the beautiful, vivid writing made for just a really soothing experience. I had to pause sometimes to just take it all in. I was also delighted by the romance – Ruyi and Princess Zhen’s relationship, and the connection Ning and Kang shared through their experiences and the tea.
Crystal: This was a book that I simply couldn’t put down. It was compelling and I was not able to predict what would happen next. I adored the tea lore and really appreciated seeing the many relationships–romantic and otherwise.
In case anyone reading along hasn’t seen it, the cover of the sequel is out and it’s so beautiful. I think it’s safe to say we’re all really excited about the sequel. Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to?
Jessica: More of Princess Zhen and Ruyi! And I really hope Steward Yang and the rest of the kitchen staff are okay. I’d also love to see Lian again. Okay, this is just a list of all the amazing characters I already miss.
K. Imani: Being that as of this writing, I’m not done with the book, Jessica you just spoiled it a bit for me. LOL. But I’m close enough to the end to figure out that there is going to be a sequel to the book (Thank you for sharing that gorgeous cover!) and that I’m about to be devastated in some way.
Jessica: Ahhhh, I’m sorry!! But glad you got to see the gorgeous sequel cover. >:)
Audrey: I am SO excited to read the sequel! I agree with Jessica—I want more of Princess Zhen and Ruyi, but I’m also really interested to see what Ning and Shu’s dynamics are like in real time, rather than mostly from Ning’s memories.
Crystal: I’m definitely happy to know that there is more to read after this first book. I was not ready to leave this world and I want to know more about many of the characters. We are fortunate to have more to look forward to.
Finally, what tea did you drink while reading A Magic Steeped in Poison? And what fantasy books by BIPOC authors are you looking forward to reading next?
Audrey: I had a ginger peach blend! So far as fantasy goes, I’m really hoping to get my hands on Joan He’s Strike the Zither and Rati Mehrotra’s Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dovethis fall.
Crystal: Since I was not feeling my best, I was drinking ginger tea with additional ingredients like cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, star anise and a few other things. It’s not a true tea, but is definitely a nice warm herbal drink that makes me feel better. Drinks like this certainly seem magical. Café Con Lychee by Emery Lee and An Arrow to the Moon by Emily X.R. Pan are two books I have on my list.
Jessica: I drank a roasted oolong milk tea with honey! And I’m excited to check out An Arrow to the Moon by Emily X.R. Pan next! And looking ahead, I’m really looking forward to The Witchery by S. Isabelle (out July 26th, I believe).
K. Imani: I tend to start each day with chai or a rooibos (it’s end of the year & allergy season) so I switched between the two as I read this book. As for new fantasy books…I just bought Tahereh Mafi’s “This Woven Kingdom” so I’m excited to lose myself in another one of Mafi’s worlds.
So there you have it! What did you think of A Magic Steeped in Poison? Did any themes, moments, or details leap out to you? What are you looking forward to in the sequel? Share with us!