Xolo Score 4/5
A Magic Stepped in Poison is the first book in Judy I. Lin’s Book of Tea Duology. It kicks off with the main character Ning desperate to find an antidote for the poison she accidentally brews for her mother and younger sister. Ning’s mother dies from the poison, and Ning’s sister is slowly dying. Ning hears that the palace is holding a competition to find the most skilled magical tea-making apprentice known as a shennong-shi, and the winner will receive favor from the Princess. Left without options, Ning runs away from home to attend the competition in the imperial city, where she quickly gets pulled into political betrayals and conspiracies that threaten civil war across the empire.
*** SPOILERS AHEAD ***
Judy I. Lin’s writing is steeped in stunning Chinese-Taiwanese imagery and lore. Lin also showcases the true magic of a cup of tea. In Ning’s world, tea can be anything from an apology, a weapon, or a memory. Ning and other aspiring shennong-shi from across the nation use tea as an opportunity to obtain power and riches. Many like Ning come from lower caste families that live on the provincial outskirts of the imperial city and are overwhelmed by endless taxes from imperial officers. These tensions between the have and have nots grow thick as Ning progresses through the competition. She is confronted with the reality that the judges favor fair-skinned contestants from wealthy and well-connected families.
Ning does not believe that your name should determine your value or how you are treated, or your probability of winning a life-changing competition. Ning befriends Kang, the previously exiled nephew of the gravely ill emperor. They bond over their frustrations with the Imperial court’s role in enforcing a caste system and how their tax policies force so many toward illicit methods of providing for their families.
In A Magic Steeped in Poison, what shines throughout is Ning’s character development. She is fueled by redemption and determination, but these emotions don’t completely blind her. Ning gets pulled into the more significant systemic problems of the royal palace and doesn’t hesitate to step in and help. But she never loses herself in the other’s messiness. She has a strong sense of who she is and who she refuses to become.
A Magic Steeped in Poison is an aromatic and enchanting story of redemption, tea magic, and political corruption.
To what extent are there BIPOC leading characters or perspectives?
How well does the author avoid writing BIPOC experiences through the white gaze?
To what extent does the author challenge white-centered beliefs?
How well does the book explore nuances between intersectional identities?