Loved it.

filled star filled star filled star filled star filled star
sahibooknerd Avatar


Definitely a 4.5 but I’m rounding up.

The author’s debut Keeper of the Night was one of my favorite debuts of 2021 and while it’s sequel may have disappointed me a bit, I was extremely excited when I got to know that her next novel was gonna be set in an alternate Tang dynasty China. I’ve been waiting to read this for a while now and finally got the chance when I got the audiobook copy. And it was a dark and delicious read.

This book hooks you right away. I was immediately taken in by the idea of our protagonist, a biracial young orphan girl living with her Aunt’s family, helping with their business and dreaming of becoming a royal alchemist so that she can uplift her family from their poverty. The author quickly gives us a rundown of how the lives of the poor people might have been in those days through her eyes and the despair and gloom feels very real. The plot moves very quickly, which circumstances changing for Zilan all the time, her having to make decisions that can affect not just her future but of her family as well. The author also gives us just enough information about the dynamics of the royal family and the court, as well as glimpses into the kind of alchemical magic that’s possible. I won’t say the book was entirely predictable but it was familiar enough that I felt at ease, hoping I can glean what’s coming. And while the ending was both heartbreaking and a tad bit surprising, in retrospect it does feel mostly inevitable.

I think what makes this book so interesting though are the characters. Zilan can be impulsive and does/says things without thinking sometimes but it’s also because she is scared of not being loved by her cousins, of feeling like her Aunt and Uncle are doing her a favor, petrified of being abandoned again if she doesn’t make herself useful for them. But her love for them is immense and she always thinks about what she can do to better their lives. Yufei and Wenshu can be a bit of an enigma at times because we don’t get their POV and it can feel like they aren’t being supportive of Zilan’s more impulsive decisions, but they really care for her and just want her to be safe, without getting embroiled in royal business.

The Crown Prince Li Hong on the other hand is an exercise in privilege, doing things that he feels are helpful for Zilan but she feels extremely insulted by. He is compassionate but naive and indecisive but his character growth is interesting. The romance developing between him and Zilan is obvious but I hoped it wasn’t so quick, though it’s not surprising that two young people starved for affection might gravitate towards each other.

I really enjoyed how the author created this alternate Tang Dynasty because it’s the one era I know a bit about and how it would have been with life altering alchemical inventions was so cool to imagine. The gorgeous writing also made it easier for me to picture the narrative like a cdrama, which I absolutely delighted in doing. The immense classism, racism against ethnic minorities and biracial people, the corruption of the royal court, and the desolate lives of the common people are described with lot of emotion and made the book so much more than a escapist romantic YA fantasy.

Ultimately, this new series starter is dark, horrific at times, but the beauty of the writing keeps one glued to the pages, and the inherent hope for a better future among the characters makes us high with anticipation. The absolutely amazing Natalie Naudus makes the audiobook experience stunning, as she always does, and I would highly recommend the format. If I have to give a comp title though, I feel fans of A Magic Steeped in Poison duology will enjoy this one a lot.