Falling head first into a new fantasy series is one of our favorite pastimes. So when we discovered Judy I. Lin’s stunning magical tea-steeping story A Magic Steeped in Poison, we became hooked. The first in the author’s The Book of Tea duology, the story follows Ning. She’s a magician studying the art of tea-making. In an attempt to help her family, she heads to the capital city for a cutthroat tea making contest. The contest features the greatest shennong-shi—ancient practitioners of tea-making—getting tested and judged. It’s a bracing and exhilarating tale of court intrigue, one that has us unbelievably excited for the follow up novel. That one, A Venom Dark and Sweet, will hit shelves in August.
To celebrate this radical new duology we chatted with Lin about crafting the immersive fantasy world and the intricate nature of tea.
Nerdist: What was the origin of A Magic Steeped in Poison? How did it come to life from concept to page?
Judy I. Lin: A Magic Steeped in Poison started with the concept of magical tea. To be used, it has to be brewed and consumed, so how would practitioners of this type of magic interact with it? I was also interested in the limitations of such a system. What sorts of obstacles could I put into place so that it is a challenging skill to master? It’s through questions like these that the idea grew into a story, but the spark was always about tea.
That intricate nature of tea steeping plays such a huge and immersive part of the narrative. Could you speak to building that into the story?
With tea magic at the base, I started looking into various types of tea ceremonies around the world. I’m from Taiwan, and we spend a lot of our time drinking various types of tea. It’s what my family drinks every morning, and what we provide to guests whenever they come to our house. To my surprise, when I continued my research, the way I watched my father and my family brew tea is actually a type of ceremony in itself. It’s called Gongfu Cha (“skilled tea-making”), which is focused on perfecting every single element of the tea, from the water, to the vessel, to the type of tea leaf, and the way the tea is poured in order to make the perfect mouthful of tea. It felt very natural to incorporate it into my story, and pays tribute to my own heritage.
The world building in A Magic Steeped in Poison is so immersive. How did you go about creating it?
The characters in A Magic Steeped in Poison spend most of their time in Jiā, which is the capital of the Empire of Dàxī. I was greatly inspired by the Song Dynasty of ancient China because it was a period of advancement in culture and science in Chinese history. I had already done a lot of research into the capital, Bianjing (now known as Kaifeng), for another project and a lot of details from that research went into the development of Jiā. I wanted to portray a city in which there was lively entertainment, scholarly discourse, but also unrest simmering under the surface.
My inspiration for the palace itself is based on the Summer Palace in Beijing. The setting of Chinese palaces have always been a source of inspiration to me because I grew up watching Chinese palace dramas. However, I knew that I did not want to write a harem drama where concubines fight one another for the attention of the distant emperor. I wanted to write a story with court intrigue instead, and the idea of there being shifting alliances and watchful eyes upon your every move.
In the sequel, A Venom Dark and Sweet, we travel beyond the walls of Jiā to explore other corners of Dàxī. So I hope readers will follow me there to see what else the world I created has to offer!
Ning comes across as such a vibrant, strong, yet relatable character. How did she come to life and why was she the perfect lead for this story?
Ning was actually the most difficult character for me to figure out because it felt like she fought me every step of the way! But I think it resulted in a complexity to her character that resonates with many readers. She begins the story struggling with her self-doubt. She feels like an imposter while associating with others who have already mastered the magic she struggles to wield. It is through her experiences where she begins to grow into her confidence, and even though there are easier ways out, she makes difficult choices time and time again: to remain in the competition for her sister, and then eventually, for herself. I hope she is a relatable character to those who may have also travelled far from home and felt like a fish out of water or thrust into roles they did not believe they were capable of.
Do you have a moment or a character beat you’re most excited for readers to discover when they pick up the book?
There is a particular scene that I enjoyed writing where Ning and a mysterious boy she encounters share a vulnerable moment in the garden where they realize they have more in common than they thought. It’s those moments of connection that I love to write, where a character discovers they are not so alone in the world after all.
This feels like the kind of book that will become an instant favorite for fantasy lovers—it certainly is for me—what are some of your favorite reads?
I am an avid reader of fantasy from Middle Grade to Adult, because that feeling of magic potentially being all around us is something that I don’t ever want to lose.
A childhood favorite that I revisit every so often is the Crown Duel duology by Sherwood Smith. It has action and romance and adventure with a little bit of magic, but I liked how a lot of times the heroine Mel had to rely on her wits instead of magical solutions to her problems.
The Blood of Stars duology by Elizabeth Lim is another favorite. I loved that the magic was about an artistic pursuit—tailoring—and the worldbuilding was so fantastic. It was such an immersive read that I didn’t want the story to end.
A Magic Steeped in Poison arrives on shelves today. Get your copy now.