A young adult (YA) fantasy set in a world inspired by imperial Chinese history, A Magic Steeped in Poison is the first in planned duology from author Judy I. Lin and is well worth a read. Lin plunges us into a world where where living gods influence events, assassins stalk the shadows, and a tea ceremony can be the difference between life and death.
From the publisher:
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.
This engaging novel's setting is a fascinating one and left me wanting more. Even a traveler's guide to the world that Lin has so careful imagined and written. The magic system is fascinating and meshes well with the worldbuilding going on around it. Plants, particularly tea, have powers that can influence humans if unlocked by those with the talent to do so. Of course, these powers can be used to harm as well as heal and the empire is living under the deadly mystery of who might distributing poisoned tea, causing mass illness, death and unrest. As Ning seeks a cure for this human-made plague, she falls into politics, intrigue, danger, and plenty of tea-making meagic.
The characters are interesting people with genuine motivations, though both they and the resulting plot are frequently predictable for fantasy readers. On occasion some of the character interactions and relationships felt slightly artificial, in service to the plot rather than the motivators of the plot. On one or two occasions I felt that the plot jumped in a way that was difficult to follow, but this may have been due to my inattention rather than unclear writing. This was never a derailing of my reading, just the occasional speedbump.
I was delighted to see that there was good 2SLGBTQ+ representation in the cast. The characters whose sexualities were revealed to be non-heterosexual had personalities and roles beyond their sexualities while also demonstrating some of the necessary nuances of living as members of a minority group in this world. Healthy and non-tokenistic representations of 2SLGBTQ+ people are becoming more common in fantasy writing, but still a rarity and it was really heartening to meet some in Lin's writing.
Carolyn Kang does an excellent job narrating the audiobook, giving an easy to listen to performance with plenty of drama but never overtaking the story with her own personality.
Overall, A Magic Steeped in Poison is a very enjoyabler read and definitely recommended if you like mystery, tension, and a great fantasy setting.