A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin – Book Review!

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 favour 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.

Ning blames herself for her mothers death, for brewing the tea that poisoned her and is slowly killing her sister. So when a letter comes to the house offering the chance to become the Shenong-shi to the Empress, Ning knows this is her one chance to get healers from court to come and save her sister. But Ning has to lie to get into the competition, and between the backstabbing courtiers, court politics and her other, wealthier competitors, Ning feels her chance slowly slipping away. That is until something happens, something that puts Ning in danger, but also offers her a chance at saving her sister. With her heart and life on the line, Ning has to make a decision, a decision that could save or destroy her.

Holy cow is this book just as beautiful as the cover. I’d read a whole bunch of reviews that absolutely raved about this book, something that always makes me wary it wont live up to the hype, but it did and then some. A Magic Steeped in Poison follows Ning on her time in the trials to become a shennong-shi, something she has had to lie to enter, but knows it’s the only chance she has to save her sister. Ning is headstrong and has an affinity with tea few others have, but what makes her special is her determinism, she knows that she is looked down on due to her background, that there are other, more trained shennong-shu who would thrive in the role, but they don’t have a life relying on them winning the competition. So despite the backstabbing, people trying to remove her from the competition, her own life being in danger she has a will to survive, a will to win and it was truly special following this girl as she grew through the competition.

As well as Ning, Lin treats us to a wide cast of side characters, most of whom absolutely pulled at my heartstrings. Lian, another shennong-shu who has entered the competition, but someone who quickly becomes Ning’s friend, the one person she can rely on in the Palace. The Princess and her guard Ruyi who ask Ning to spy on someone they think is after the throne, to the serving staff in the Palace, who Ning quickly becomes friends with. And finally Bo, the mysterious boy that Ning meets on her first visit to the city, a boy that is keeping secrets, secrets that will have an effect on Ning she will never see coming. They all help further the plot, add to the drama and also give Ning more depth as a character, and I loved the scenes where we get to see her interact with them all.

Now for the magic, which was by far my favourite part of the book. Shennong-Shi are masters of magical tea making, able to brew teas that can heal, recover memories, discern truth from lies… basically anything you can imagine, and while this does sound rather simple, it was Lin’s luscious writing style that brought it to life. Her descriptions of the magic had me glued to the pages, she talks about the intricacies of it, how each individual component of the tea has it’s own importance, how brewing time can effect the potency. Brewing tea doesn’t sound like it should be magical, but it absolutely is and some of my favourite scenes from the book are the ones where Ning, or others in the competition used their magic. If there’s one other thing that Lin writes well it’s food, I cannot tell you how hungry this book made me, the descriptions of all the different dishes, the aromas she described had my mouth watering and my stomach rumbling wanting to dive in the book and try them all.

Lin does a brilliant job of weaving in lots of different folktales from Chinese mythology, either using them as plot points for her book, or using her characters to introduce us to the stories and how they fit into her world. Thanks to reading a few Chinese mythology based books recently, I managed to notice a lot of the stories she used and loved seeing the little nods to Chinese culture she put in there. The one thing I wasn’t the biggest fan of was the romance, it was a little too much like insta-love for me, but I do think it played a small part in the overall book, so never took away from my overall enjoyment.

That ending! It should be illegal to end a book like that. I read the last sentence and flicked through the last pages making sure I hadn’t missed something and it’s safe to say I need to get my hands on book two asap. Lin has created a world and magic that leap off the page, with characters you can’t help but root for and a story filled with court politics, deception, romance and intrigue.

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