I was right. The main threat introduced in A Magic Steeped in Poison that is more directly addressed and defined in A Venom Dark and Sweet was indeed of the ancient evil thing wants to resurrect and take over and destroy the known world. A Venom Dark and Sweet does manage to give heroine Ning more personality though in spite of maintaining her first person voice alternating with a third person representation of Kang’s perspective on things. They’re sort on the same side but also on opposing sides of the good vs evil. The other thing I think the conclusion of the duology does well is manages the balance of good-bad; it actually manages the ‘it’s complicated’ in most all cases pretty well. Ning has at least one moment of “I should do the self-sacrificing selfless thing, but who am I kidding, I’m not actually willing to do that”, and Kang realizes that his father (the human part of the big ancient evil) might actually not be as bad as he might be seeming. I’m actually a little impressed that this gets managed without an annoyingly unnecessary redemption or tragic sob/backstory.
There are a few holes that bug me though; Kang at one point notes the presence of a former teacher and notices something is off, but that’s never resolved directly. The deaths of a handful of allies from the first installment don’t get much attention despite Ning and Kang both recognizing that their actions are having consequences for a lot of people who have helped them and may not deserve to be hung or trampled by horses in public executions. The mythology behind the big evil behind everything could also be better developed for those of use unfamiliar with some of the specific references to Chinese mythology or folklore, and history. The magic system that felt incomplete in the first book does get more attention here, but there’s some worldbuilding that I missed.
The plot in general is a pretty standard quest set up, but that’s almost not even the point. The personal and spiritual growth of Ning but also a little bit Kang, and their relationships with each other and those around them. I have to say, I do like the ending since both MCs essentially achieve the goal they’ve had from the beginning but it’s not quite the way they thought. The same goes for several other key side characters including the Princess.