Monday, October 03, 2022

A Magic Steeped in Poison, by Judy I Lin

Ning's mother was a shénnóng-shì, a master of the art of Tea and of Chinese medicine, before she died from drinking poisoned tea that Ning had unknowingly brewed for her mother and her sister.  There had been a warning, but Ning ignored it.  Now, her sister still lives, but barely.  Hope comes in the form of an invitation for the shénnóng of the empire to come and compete for the position of court tea master.  Ning has barely studied her mother's art (it was always her sister who was supposed to take on the role), but she knows some of the skills and she really has no other choice.  Only by winning the contest and receiving the prize of a wish granted by the princess can she save her family from ruin and subsequently cure her sister.  So she heads out to the imperial capital.

The poisoned tea was
 not a random act.  Bricks of it were found throughout the kingdom.  It is clear that it was part of a bigger plot to destabilize the empire, but who is behind that?  As a country girl, Ning is quickly out of her depth as she finds herself deep in court intrigue, but she has good instincts and hidden strengths that surprise her as she gathers friends and supporters (as well as making new enemies).  In comparison to the plots against the emperor and his daughter, winning the contest may become an afterthought, but it too is tied in with this struggle for power.

While little of the medical lore used in the story aligns with the actual modern practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is a loving tribute to its sensibilities.  And as a dedicated Chinese teahead, I really enjoyed all the references to tea (some real, some imagined).  It's a story that takes a small bit of Chinese history, throws in a generous helping of Chinese myth, and spices the whole brew with modern fantasy, and then allows the whole thing to steep in its gaiwan before being served up.

And for those who love action and intrigue, the story is full of nearly endless activity.  A large cast of characters ensure that there is rarely a dull moment.  The endless parade of places with names like the "Hall of Reflection" or the "Courtyard of Promising Future" provide an oriental exoticism.  While it can also prove disorienting and make the story hard to follow, this just makes the ride more fun.  In stories like this, it's best to just let the plot take you along.

In sum, a richly textured and complexly drawn tale based on Chinese mythology and imbued with enough modern sensibility to make the story exciting and palatable to a contemporary audience.  An enjoyable beginning to a series, whose second installment was released a little over a month ago.

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