A Magic Steeped in Poison, by Judy I. Lin

Judy I. Lin's A Magic Steeped in Poison is a fun novel by any standard, and a really impressive debut. In Lin's Chinese- and Taiwanese-inspired historical fantasy, a girl named Ning is desperate to cure her dying sister. Ning's only hope is winning the shennong-shi trials—a high-court competition of magical tea-brewing, with a royal boon as the grand prize. Armed with her late mother's tea knowledge, Ning makes a decent showing at the early events, but as she becomes more familiar with the court she realizes that this “festival” is about something far darker and more urgent than anyone is willing to admit.

While I give Ms. Lin full points for creativity, A Magic Steeped in Poison would have benefited from 50 more pages of world-building. Normally I'm all in favor of getting to the good stuff, but Lin flies through her backstory with such ruthless efficiency that it doesn't always make sense. (Like, *how* is Ning so good at her tea magic? Her training is supposed to be spotty, despite her innate skill. I found myself yearning for the book equivalent of a training montage.) This minor weakness, however, is easily ignored in favor of the novel's many virtues: a determined heroine, intriguing side characters, lush settings, and—of course—competitive tea battles(!!!) You might not think it possible to imbue the description of a tea ceremony with the impact of a physical fight, but Ms. Lin totally delivers... and if there isn't a literary award for that, there should be.

I have already ordered the sequel to A Magic Steeped in Poison, but what I really would like is a film adaptation. Partially because I think the sensory richness of this story would be well-suited to the screen, but mostly because I am a tea hoarder, and I want to see a bunch of merchandising tie-ins: tea blends! Branded snacks! Gaiwan inspired by the totally gorgeous cover art! I hope Ms. Lin's agents are out there looking to make this happen, because I would buy it all.
Posted by: Julianka


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