When Judy I. Lin grew up — first in her native Taiwan, then Alberta, Canada, where she moved at age 8 and now lives — she couldn’t find many fantasy books with Asian characters, let alone Taiwanese. So, in 2018, she decided to write her own so that her young daughter could read one day.
In her YA debut, “A Magic Steeped in Poison” — now in its second week at the top of the list for young adults — a 17-year-old named Zhang Ning learned the hard way that there is a dark side to the mystical art of make tea, or shennong† Ning, a student of this practice, brewed a tea with leaves that she didn’t know contained a nasty poison, and it killed her mother and could also kill her sister. Ning ventures all the way from her small village to the Imperial City to enter a tea drinking contest, hoping to win a court favor that could heal her sister. Of course, there are other competitors, including an attractive young man, to stand in her way.
As she began her world-building process four years ago, Lin knew she would focus the story on the booze that was such a constant in her upbringing. But even though she grew up in a household that drank a lot of tea, and lived for years in a climate particularly suited to harvesting these special leaves, “when I did the research and developed the magical system in my book, there was so much of a great part of my culture that I didn’t even know was related to tea,” she said.
The fire under this fantasy thriller is the connection between tea and ancient Chinese medicine, both of which are about “balancing different forces in the body,” Lin explained. You add a little of one ingredient to improve one property, and you add something else—perhaps even a “mild toxin”—to counteract a negative result elsewhere. In the Chinese tradition, that back-and-forth adjustment can be so small, that weighted scale so delicate, that it doesn’t take much for Ning to get it very wrong.
“A Magic Steeped in Poison” is the first book in a planned duology, because Lin “knew I had more of the story to tell.” Although Mandarin was her first language, she has lived in Canada for so long that she finds it difficult to write in Chinese without a computer. But “I can still read Chinese,” she said, and this English-language book is steeped in the poetry, folktales and novels of her first home.
Lauren Christensen is an editor at The Book Review.