In Judy I. Lin’s debut novel, A MAGIC STEEPED IN POISON, certain people — those who have been blessed with Shennong’s gifts — are able to use the ingredients and rituals of tea brewing to weave spells.
Some can use their power to see the future, others can brew teas that affect the mind, and some can heal. Practitioners of these arts are called shennong-tu, and masters are called shennong-shi.
Ning, a teenage shennong-tu, has been invited to the imperial palace to participate in a competition hosted by the emperor’s daughter. The competition will determine who will become the court shennong-shi, and win a favor from the princess.
She and the other trainees face a series of challenges to prove their skills. Winning will require a strong magical gift and a deep knowledge of tea. It will also require the strength of character to withstand the machinations of the court.
Ning is desperate to win a favor from the princess. Her sister, Shu, is gravely ill – poisoned by tea distributed to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. Many people throughout the empire died as a result of the poisoned tea. Shu’s ongoing illness does not react to any antidote that Ning or her family have access to; the only way to save Shu is with the princess’s help.
As the competition progresses, Ning begins to form friendships with other people from the palace. In particular with Kang, the son of the banished prince – the current emperor’s brother. Kang has returned from exile to petition his uncle and cousin to right the wrongs that their people are suffering.
Ning and Kang form a bond before she knows who he is, before she knows the dangers of associating with him. Their connection does not go unnoticed by the princess. She tasks Ning with finding out Kang’s true motivations for returning to the capital.
As the princess well knows, there are those who are working against her. Not only out in the empire, but within the palace walls.
Now embroiled in a world completely alien to her own, Ning must navigate her loyalties to the princess, to her family, and to Kang – who she is now inextricably connected to after they shared a cup of tea.
The magic of Shennong requires a sacrifice of the user. When Ning is exerting her powers to look into someone’s mind, they can see into hers. If she uses her powers to heal someone, she has to experience their pain to do it. And the more magic she uses on a person, the more deeply they are bonded.
The world that Judy I. Lin has created is shaped by a deep mythology that simmers under the surface of her novel. She has carefully considered the layout of her world and the ways that geography, politics, and religion have shaped different regions. Ning feels like the proverbial fish out of water when she comes from the fringes of her small town into the heart of the country.
A MAGIC STEEPED IN POISON is a character-driven fantasy novel within a beautifully rendered world. Lin’s turns of phrase are poetic and deeply evocative. Her descriptions of food – and tea, of course – will send you straight to the kitchen.