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A Magic Steeped in Poison

A Magic Steeped in Poison


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Book Review

Ning’s sister hovers near death. She drank poisoned tea—as have so many others—and Ning is now desperate to save her sister at any cost. Ning must compete in a royal tea competition and use tea magic to save her family and bring justice to the oppressed people of the kingdom.

Plot Summary

Ning is desperate. In a society where tea isn’t just important, but magical, she accidentally gave her mother and sister poisoned tea, and she’s consumed by regret and grief after watching her mother die. She has one chance to hold off her sister’s death: she must pretend to be her mother’s apprentice and enter a royal competition to find the kingdom’s next shénnóng-shi.

The shénnóng-shi are those who are trained to create and understand the magic of tea rituals. And though Ning has some experience in both working with tea and the art of healing—thanks to her parent’s gifts and experiences—she feels woefully out of her depth. 

The royal courts are lavish and corrupt, nothing like her rural home. Stumbling into conspiracy and scheming at virtually every turn, Ning discovers that her fellow competitors and the governing officials are telling lies.

But the ingredients to the teas call to her, the berries and the flowers combine to create the magic that each situation demands. She may not have the training or the resources of the other competitors, but she is talented and determined.

She must trust her instincts and rise up to stop the darkness that threatens to consume her, her family, and the kingdom.

Christian Beliefs


Other Belief Systems

The novel is steeped in Chinese mythology and magic. We read frequent references to various gods and goddesses of old and who are worshipped by the people. These gods and goddesses are the source of the magic utilized in the tea rituals. The shénnóng magic is like a conversation with them, according to Ning’s mom. Characters tell several stories of the old gods’ actions and their consequences. Specific spaces in the castle are meant for worship and include representations of the gods.

Tea has the ability to change emotions, heal or harm people and create illusions. We see people and creatures manipulated by tea magic. Some residents of the nation are more superstitious than others, believing in supernatural beings like ghosts and spirits. The tea sometimes produces omens and apparitions. Astronomy, though a rare profession, is still practiced and used to tell the future.

The nature of the soul is mentioned several times. Ning contemplates the different parts of the soul, whether it is good or bad, and discusses the afterlife.

Authority Roles

Ning’s mom and dad love her and her sister, Shu, and they treat the girls with kindness, even though Ning feels misunderstood. Ning’s dad is grief stricken when Ning’s mother dies, but he continues to help his daughters as much as he can.

The authoritarian government is corrupt and full of dissension, falling apart at the seams. Lies and deception abound. Officials at the highest level and lowly military men alike treat the poor with disdain. The foolish and selfish actions of the government and its officials drives much of the novel’s plot.

Profanity & Violence

This novel does not contain foul language. An inappropriate and disrespectful term for a brothel is used. Ning finds herself at a rally where she notices that soldiers curse and use foul gestures (though they’re not defined).

The book takes use through Ning’s mom’s painful death. We also hear about punishments involving lashes and beatings. People shoot arrows at others, and characters fight with swords (cutting each other at times). Assassinations, banishment and beheadings are mentioned. The royal Princess Zhen’s female bodyguard is stabbed and poisoned and on the verge of a painful death before Ning helps drain the poison away.

Ning drinks wine to the point of experiencing minor effects. Other characters drink wine at social functions, sometimes to the point of intoxication.

Sexual Content

Ning has several romantically charged interactions with a young man her age. The two hold hands and eventually kiss.

Ning’s parents slept together while her mother was in the beginning stages of an arranged marriage to another person. Ning’s mother got pregnant, and the two lovers left the castle, taking great risk to raise Ning as their own.

The Princess and her female bodyguard, Ruyi, are more than just friends. And it’s implied that the two are lovers. Ning notices this and conclusively decides that they are in a romantic relationship.

Ning also runs across male officials drinking together. It’s implied that they were dallying with young maidens there as well. A competitor of Ning’s grabs her and mentions her beauty when he believes she is a servant. He is told off by an older man who mentions that the palace is not like the places he frequents to pay to be with women.

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Additional Comments

Author Judy I. Lin presents an engaging tale. The descriptions in this novel are beautiful, and elements of the Chinese culture we learn about here in the story are very interesting. And Ning’s easy to root for: She fights against oppression wherever she can, and her desire to help the poor is admirable.

It should be noted, however, that this novel does not completely wrap up its story, and a sequel is in the works. Some minor violence, sensual elements and some prominently featured Chinese mythology are the main areas of concern.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not necessarily their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Review by Marsella Evans