My streak has ended. I’ve been reading straight bangers for the last few months, each book presenting well-plotted stories and engaging worlds filled with unique characters. My latest read—Judy I. Lin’s A Magic Steeped In Poison—has oodles of promise, but it ultimately falls short on numerous counts.
Ning unknowingly brewed a poisonous tea that killed her mother. Now, that same poison has a hold on her sister, Shu. Wracked with guilt, Ning longs for a solution, an antidote to her toxic mistake. Relief comes in the form of a scroll announcing a competition at the palace to find the empire’s next shénnóng-shī, or master tea maker. Ning treks to the city to compete, trusting in her knowledge of the magical tea-brewing arts her mother taught her. When she arrives, she’s thrust into a world of political machinations and backstabbing. Ning struggles to determine who’s a friend and who’s a foe, all while vying for the coveted role of the palace’s new shénnóng-shī against more experienced competitors.
A Magic Steeped In Poison feels like a Stretch Armstrong pulled by each limb to its breaking point. Each element of the story feels disparate from the next, and the book doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a Hunger Games-style competition narrative? A political thriller? An adventure-romance? It’s possible for a book to be all of these things, of course. A Magic Steeped In Poison tries combining such elements, resulting in a piecemeal story that lacks cohesion or a clear direction.
Let’s start with the plot, which is completely devoid of any stakes or urgency. Within two chapters, Ning leaves home, hoping she can win the competition and earn a favor from the Empire alongside the role of imperial shénnóng-shī, which would set her family up for life. As soon as the competition starts, Ning thinks of her father and sister back at home once in a great while. The mentions are so few and far between that I, as the reader, never felt like Ning knew what she really wanted. Never is this clearer than in the first task Ning must accomplish for the competition. All competitors are given a dish from their hometown. They have two hours to venture into the markets outside the palace and find ingredients to brew a tea that complements the dish. Ning runs to the market with her newfound friend and fellow competitor Lian, then they’re immediately separated. A cute, dark-haired boy who calls himself Bo then apprehends Ning, they immediately realize they like each other, and proceed to have a full-blown date over a cup of tea at a random tea shop. The competition, the one thing Ning needs to accomplish to save her dying sister, takes a backseat to an insta-love romance that, frankly, never gets more believable as the novel progresses. A Magic Steeped In poison is filled with moments like this, in which Ning makes terrible decisions and seems to forget her entire purpose.
Ning is the most fleshed-out character of the book, and that’s a shame. I know very little about her other than her quest to save her sister, her guilt over her mom’s death, and her desire for a better life for her family. The remaining cast members are even less rounded. Bo (later revealed to be Kang) has the dark-haired bad-boy with a good streak vibe so prevalent in insta-love stories. Lian, Ning’s first friend from the competition, has a history with the palace and serves as a good guide for Ning. Other staff members pop in and out, and corrupt politicians are a dime a dozen. I can remember names, but I’d probably fail a test if required to match them with their role in the story. The result is a cast of translucent characters without any real substance.
The magic system suffers from similar issues. It’s ill-defined and hard to follow, though Lin does have some elegant prose describing it in action. Despite the nice surrounding language, the magic of a shénnóng-shī (or a shénnóng-tú, an apprentice) sounds more interesting in theory than it actually reads in practice. There seems to be little limit to what the tea-brewing magic can do, and that’s fine in and of itself. I don’t mind a soft magic system, especially if it adds whimsy and wonder to a book. But here doesn’t serve the story or characters particularly well The entire competition hinges on a participant’s ability to work with the magic, but we learn virtually nothing about Ning or her competitors through their use of it. To be fair, the brief glimpses we do get into the magic are some of the more interesting character moments in the novel; they’re too few and far between to be impactful, though.
The competition does spur the story…I just expected it to be a core plot driver, and it felt more like an underserved side plot. When she arrives at the palace, Ning becomes embroiled in a web of political intrigue. The emperor is ill, so princess Zhen is ruling in his stead. Bo, who we later discover is named Kang, is the son of a banished prince, ostensibly here to bridge the divide between sectors of the royal family. The competition’s judges each have their own agenda, too. Some of them cavort with their favorite competitors and give them advantages. Ning’s new world is corrupt to the bone, and on its own, that fact might seem interesting. Unfortunately, the intrigue within is near-impossible to follow. There are countless players with their own agendas, and the book doesn’t have enough space to manage the politics, the competition, and Ning’s quest to save her sister. The book’s conclusion focuses heavily on this aspect, unraveling many of the threads from earlier on. Problem is, I wasn’t invested at all, and what should’ve read as a big reveal fell flat.
A cursory glance at other reviews for A Magic Steeped In Poison, particularly on Goodreads, indicates that I’m not exactly in the majority. I’m not alone, but many folks seemed to resonate with Judy I. Lin’s story. If that’s you, I hope you enjoy it. As for me? This is too bitter a brew for my palate.
Rating: A Magic Steeped In Poison – 4.5/10