New York Times-bestselling author Judy I. Lin is back to wrap up her Book of Tea duology with A Venom Dark and Sweet, a more than worthy sequel that brings this Chinese folklore inspired series to a enchantingly satisfying ending.
Here’s the summary…
A great evil has come to the kingdom of Dàxi. The Banished Prince has returned to seize power, his rise to the dragon throne aided by the mass poisonings that have kept the people bound in fear and distrust.
Ning, a young but powerful shénnóng-shi—a wielder of magic using the ancient and delicate art of tea-making—has escorted Princess Zhen into exile. Joining them is the princess’ loyal bodyguard, Ruyi, and Ning’s newly healed sister, Shu. Together the four young women travel throughout the kingdom in search of allies to help oust the invaders and take back Zhen’s rightful throne.
But the golden serpent still haunts Ning’s nightmares with visions of war and bloodshed. An evil far more ancient than the petty conflicts of men has awoken, and all the magic in the land may not be enough to stop it from consuming the world…
First off, tip of the cap to the folks over at Macmillan who decided to release these two books within months of each other, or at the very least, in the same calendar year. There have been occasions (there’s one coming up shortly) where the prolonged release dates between books in a series has greatly diminished my enthusiasm for the story, it’s just the way I am, can’t help it. So, having both books from the Book of Tea duology available to me so close together was truly a welcome situation and a trend I’d love to see continue (not likely).
The expeditious summary does the heavy lifting here, so I don’t have to recapitulate A Venom Dark and Sweet, but it’s important to know that Lin doesn’t simply continue the story; she expands it in mostly solicitous and engaging ways. Take the dual POVs for example, with both Zhang Ning and Li Kang holding court here, his in third person, hers in first, and the reason for that is simple. While Kang may be an important participant, he’s also our eyes and ears, connecting us to important plot details that would otherwise be laborious discovery work for Ning. It’s economical, imprecise, and entirely purposeful as Lin leaves the more pervasive and cushy heavy lifting to Ning, and her uniquely extrasensory skills. These books have many layers to them, and these abutting POVs are a good example of that.
Another important carry over is language. In the first book, we were inundated with lots of it, a long glossary of terms which for a lot of white westerners would have caused some head scratching, I’m sure. But the most important and often repeated terms, “shénnóng-shi” and “shénnóng-tu”, both referring, in this instance, to the ancient and magical art of tea-making, were the color and the shape of A Magic Steeped in Poison. Shi loosely means “impersonator”, where Tu means “apprentice”, but Shennong is where the rubber meets the road, and works on two levels. First, as a wonderful bit of Chinese history, where we learn about Shennong, the “Divine Farmer“, a mythological Chinese ruler who has become a deity in Chinese and Vietnamese folk religion. And second as an inspiration and conduit for a wonderful piece of fantastical fiction, one that sees Lin lean into her Taiwanese heritage, again, inspired by Taiwanese and Chinese legends, and turn out a pretty damn good bit of magic-infused storytelling.
Speaking of the magic in these books, it’s ethereal, whimsical, and all those things we love about fantasy, both high and low, but the key here is its accessibility. Because it’s worth remembering, these systems are grounded and based on the real-life application and health benefits of tea, a unique and wonderful part of Chinese history. Benefits which include but are not limited to the curing of abscesses, bladder/lung infections, thirst quenching, lessening the desire for sleep, and certain heart abnormalities. Not to mention mind altering, mood enhancement, and all sorts of incorporeal benefits that could say, help one maintain their Qi, furthering along their path towards balance, towards enlightenment.
And this isn’t entirely hocus-pocus folks, this is real, this is tangible, and it’s this perceivable connection to the earth that Lin uses to embolden her storytelling, creating a discernible relationship between us and her characters. It FEELS real because IT IS real. And after learning more about the art of tea making and its history, it’s easy to imagine just how valuable a shénnóng-shi would be to an Emperor, or just about any person in need of one. Whether it’s fact or fiction, myth or verity, shénnóng-shi, as in practitioners in the art of tea making, seem to have been mandated, diviners.
Concerning shénnóng-shi, Ning and Kang’s reunion takes place just outside the town Raohe, at the Bainiao Gorge, the home of a mystery person who everyone refers to as the “Hermit”. We don’t know much about this person other than the fact that she happens to be a very powerful shénnóng-shi, and who happens to be in possession of a relic, a magical orb called the “Night Illuminating Pearl” that gives its owner unlimited magic. Her domain is isolated, dangerous to get to, and protected by magic, leaving those who venture too close either dead or in a catatonic state. It seems everyone wants the Hermit to share her toys so both sides converge on the gorge, bringing these star-crossed lovers together once again. Of course the Hermit and the gorge itself serves as more than just a manufactured convergence, it, and she, represents a great many things about society and the pursuits and desires of men, but I won’t say anymore on that.
Under his father’s orders to retrieve the orb and being babysat by Chancellor Zhou (an entirely other matter) Kang’s got his own problems, taking daddy issues to a whole new level. Everything he once believed about the General of Kailang, his legacy, is falling apart with each new revelation. Turns out the emperor-regent, not only haunted by the memory of his wife, Kang’s mother, but is also obsessed with relics and power as well. Not superstitious himself, he understands symbols and beliefs are powerful tools, ones he intends to wield once he’s officially declared Emperor. So, notwithstanding his feelings for Ning, Kang is put in an impossible position as he’s expected to be the heir apparent Prince and follow in his father’s now muddy footsteps. Complicating things even further, Kang gets new information about those in his father’s court that will test his loyalty on all fronts, difficult choices are coming for Kang, and none of them are good.
This brings me to Ning, who’s going through a bit of an identity crisis. Her connection to the Shadow Realm/serpent hasn’t made her any friends, and although she’s earned the trust of both Princess Zhen and the would-be Empress’s guardian/lover Ruyi, convincing any allies she’s uncorrupted is proving difficult. So, to put some space between her and the blooming rebellion, a sympathetic Astronomer Wu gives her the task of finding the Hermit, and along with her also serpentine touched sister Shu, Ning goes on a bit of side quest. This leads to an incredible middle act where Ning and Shu venture through a magical bamboo forest, escorted by a pair of memorable new characters in Captain Tsai and Lieutenant Hung, assigned to protect the sisters on their journey.
The only gripe I have with these chapters is the absence of both Zhen and Ruyi, who are off gathering allies and building an army large enough to take her rightful place on the throne, representing the people of Dàxi. My affinity for Zhen and Ruyi’s relationship rivals only Kyoshi and Rangi, which is to say, I LOVE this pair with all my heart. The bodyguard/lover trope can’t miss in my opinion and along with many others, reveals an embarrassment of riches for Lin here, with a great top-to-bottom cast. Ultimately though, this isn’t their story, it’s Ning’s, so their absence is understandable, tough, but understandable.
There’s no question Ning will be venerated as a culture hero in Dàxi and beyond when all is said and done. Nothing has come easy for her (something of an inherited trait), yet she perseveres, never losing sight of what’s important, her family. And while not her intent, she is a change agent, affecting those around her in different ways as she moves though this journey, the quintessential exemplar of hard work and sacrifice. This of course makes her unpretentious, and in my book, those are best kinds of heroes. We all know the quality of the protagonist is important, but in a series, it’s vital, Lin has a good one here.
Without reading any, I’m sure some reviews will feel a little milquetoast when it comes to the ending, for me, it’s perfectly fine. So may books, either by way of tradition or expectation, “go big”, aiming for an ending so EPIC that it will leave the audience in a state of shock and awe. But consider the aftermath if you will, climbing to the top a mountain is one thing, but you must descend at some point, and these characters will of course wake up the next day and lick their wounds. But don’t worry, the ending, while perhaps not Homeric in nature, is still very much bombastic, but never so much that you’ll have to suspend your disbelief during the recovery process. And besides, the focus is where it needs to be, on Ning, a wonderfully fallible lead character and one who you will route for.
So, what’s the bottom line?
Trust me, I’ve barely scratched the surface here as far as the plot is concerned, and like the book’s primary muse, the pacing feels very much in line with the art of shénnóng-shi, or tea making. Delicate, methodical, purposeful, all things you’ll pick up on while reading this book, which displays a lovely, metered approach, reflecting the art itself.
This book—and series—feels very much written with a visual esthetic in mind. Every book world builds to certain degree, but there’s the mechanics of world building, then there’s painting a picture, and Lin paints a beautiful picture here. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention these beautiful covers by Sija Hong, which give you permission to judge these books by their covers.
Where A Magic Steeped in Poison implies a more grandiose adventure, simply skimming the surface of themes like a nation at war, political intrigue, grand romance, chosen one, etc., A Venom Dark and Sweet turns up the heat without ever scalding you. Lin uses deep cultural and historical influences, fabulous character work, and ethereal writing to deliver a beautiful story, one that you won’t soon forget.
To order a copy of both A Magic Steeped in Poison and A Venom Dark and Sweet, click HERE!
Judy I. Lin is a Taiwanese-Canadian author was born in Taiwan and immigrated to Canada with her family at a young age. She grew up with her nose in a book and loved to escape to imaginary worlds, inspired by the Taiwanese and Chinese legends she grew up with. She now works as an occupational therapist, and still spends her nights dreaming up imaginary worlds of her own. She lives on the Canadian prairies with her husband and daughter.