I like the story, the characters, and the loose historical basis, but I don’t quite get how the magic fits into things in A Magic Steeped in Poison. Working with tea and medicinal plants certainly can involve the potential for poison, but I wish there was more detail about how the magic that can allow for tea to be used for emotions, healing, or telling the future worked. I’d settled for a little more about the historical aspect of traditional Chinese medicine; there’s an index in the back but that would really disrupt the story having to go back and forth to catch all the details of what something is and figure out if it matters or not.
Ning’s mother was a master of the art of magic tea, and Ning and her sister Shu grew up learning the old ways. But her mother is dead and Shu is dying, so Ning decides to enter the competition to become the next magic tea master of the imperial court because if she wins, she can ask any favor she wants, like having the world’s best doctors help her sister. On the way, she makes friends, meets her love interest, and finds out about the political intrigues surrounding the court, including the possibility that the Emperor might be sick/dying, and his daughter the Princess may or may not have the support she needs to stand up to her uncle the Banished Prince who may or may not be thinking of bringing an army back to take the throne for himself. There’s also the mystery of the Shadow that is blamed for the recent poisoned tea spreading around the land, and rumors of various corruptions and schemes abound among those who come to take part in the competition.
Ning has to figure out who to trust, how to survive, and start to work out the supernatural magical goings on that might all somehow help her work out the way to save her family, and probably herself. It’s an interesting mystery with the details about the teas and plants, but I still think it’d have been nice to have a little more background development for those of us not familiar with the historical practices, and maybe a little more personality in the storytelling. First person narration is not my favorite, and Ning’s voice isn’t quite varied enough for me; it took me a while to get into this story because of that. She’s in a situation where she should be pretty relatable, but she’s just not. I want to know what happens, but I don’t care all that much about Ning as a character, and I think it’s because a lot of the descriptions of her feelings and thoughts are pretty similar whether it’s love, fear, anger, or whatever. I’m also a little annoyed by the suggested cliffhanger and the ultimate what’s behind the poisonings; that kind of thig is hinted at a little, but the actual explanation feels like it’s going to be one of those ancient evil rising kind of deals. We’ll see.