“Mother said there is power in words, in hopes we breathe into being. It dangles there before me, a dream once as far out of reach as the stars in the sky, my longing for a different life.”
With an absolutely stunning cover and promising such an interesting magic system, I knew I had to get my hands on this book the moment I heard about it. A tea-based magic system? Based on Chinese history and mythology? How unique and beautiful does that sound? I'm also always a fan of court politics and yes, I'm still a fan of dystopians (when done right). This book had all those things. A Magic Steeped in Poison is full of everything I could want in concept but seemed to be lacking something I can't quite put my finger on in execution.
Before I get to that, what is this book about? A Magic Steeped in Poison is set in a world that draws inspiration from imperial China. The country is run by an emperor (who no one has really seen for a while). There's a lot of unrest/unease and class divides are especially obvious. People who aren't as well off are struggling the most. To add to all this unrest, someone has been poisoning the teas in the empire, leading to many deaths. One of these deaths is our main character, Ning's, mother. Ning was the one who had prepared the tea for her mother and sister and the guilt is something she lives with every day. Although Ning's sister is still alive, she's very sick and is close to death. When Ning hears about a competition being held at the palace for the best shennong-shi (people skilled in the art/magic of tea making), she sneaks away to join the competition (despite not being a shennong-shi apprentice - that is her sister. She is, however, also innately skilled). The winner receives a favor from the princess and she plans on using that favor to help heal her sister. Cue political intrigue, a tea competition, and more while Ning tries to survive both the palace and the competition, all while hiding the fact that she shouldn't be there in the first place.
It even sounds amazing right? However, I sadly found myself losing interest about a quarter to maybe halfway through. It's not bad but I had hoped for so much more so when it was just okay I think it was worse for me than if it had been terrible. There's instalove, which I'm not a fan of, not a lot of actual development because so much (and yet, somehow, at the same time, so little) happens, and the pacing is just ... off. Like I said, it feels like nothing happens for a huge chunk of the book and then bam! Stuff happening really quickly to the point where you kind of lose yourself. I would have loved to have learned more about the politics, understand more about the unrest that exists with the nation, and I especially wanted to learn more about all of our characters. We don't really get to see any of that.
Despite my issues, this truly isn't a bad book. It is well-written, the prose is simple yet beautiful. I appreciated that Ning's love for her family is a constant part of the book, not just a brief plot device to send her to the court. You can feel her love, worry, and guilt when it comes to her family and I really loved getting more insight into her family life. I also really liked how unique the magic system is. I appreciated that it's not just about making tea but about the bonds that can be shared through tea. Also, the descriptions in this book are just ... beautiful. From the food to the palace grounds, the author does such a great job going into such little details that I legitimately got hungry at parts. I just wish this depth was extended to important components of the story as well.
I will say, despite this being just an okay read for me, I plan on picking up the next (and last book). I have a feeling this book might have felt the way it did in part because it was setting up things for the next book. The fact that the next book is already named, has a cover, and is seemingly ready to go further solidifies my assumption. That is kind of what this book felt like, the first half of what could be a really great story because it does start to pick up towards the end. All in all, this didn't bring anything particularly new to the genre, but it was well-written and has a lot of promise.
Thank you to the publisher for providing an advanced reader's copy in exchange for my honest review.