I’m seriously going to write this review with my head and not my heart. Because my head noticed a few little things that I wanted more clarity on, but my heart just wants to give it five stars. I might just split the difference and call this 4.5 stars, but that always rounds up.
For Ning, the only thing worse than losing her mother is knowing that it’s her own fault. She was the one who unknowingly brewed the poison tea that killed her—the poison tea that now threatens to also take her sister, Shu.
When Ning hears of a competition to find the kingdom’s greatest shennong-shi—masters of the ancient and magical art of tea-making—she travels to the imperial city to compete. The winner will receive a favor from the princess, which may be Ning’s only chance to save her sister’s life.
But between the backstabbing competitors, bloody court politics, and a mysterious (and handsome) boy with a shocking secret, Ning might actually be the one in more danger.
I think the star of this book is the tea. I mean, you have to consider the fact that the book uses metaphor as a title, the main character is a tea-making apprentice, and she’s on her way to a tea competition to be the royal tea master. Tea plays a vital role in this story and the culture of this story expertly combining with real world tradition including the use of medicinal herbs is just fantastic. There were moments throughout the story where I worried that this tea business would take a backseat to the rest of the plot, but it didn’t. It was prominent and it was bold like a really well brewed cup.
But the story is about young Ning, a physician’s assistant who’s sister is summoned to the palace and win a coveted position as the princess’s “shennong-shi”. This isn’t some simpleton position making tea everyday of your life, but you’re a wielder of magic and using that magic not only for its medicinal purposes, but also to guide the hand of the kingdom. I mean, this position is important and comes with the ear of the princess at your beckon call. However, Ning has her reasons for going in her sister’s stead; her sister has been poisoned by tea and she needs the help of the princess to save her.
What Ning doesn’t know is that there’s some bigger problems brewing (pardon my pun) within the kingdom. There’s word of a rebellion and an old banished prince who wants to claim the throne for his own. And as Ning spends weeks in the capital city earning her place as the Shennong-shi, she learns that there is much more at stake for the entire kingdom.
Ning was my kind of main character. She doesn’t have it completely together and easily able to insult the leaders of the country by accidentally reciting the wrong poem, but she’s smart. She may stumble and perhaps make the wrong deduction from time to time, but that’s what I love about her. And what I love about the writing in this story. Judy Lin is able to really lay the character out for you through her almost poetic tone. I felt like I knew Ning and following along with her as she finds out more truths within the palace. I loved that I was seeing what was happening rather than being told or worse, being left behind while the characters go off to carry out some truth the reader doesn’t even see.
The royal and political drama was palatable and I really loved the pacing here. The competition stages weren’t rushed, but you also get an idea of what’s happening beyond that. I found it so difficult to see where Ning’s loyalties lie, which is great because that level of mystery kept me reading. Is it with the princess? Is it with the mysterious boy, Kang, who’s somehow captured her heart? Is it with her sister and ensuring that she can save her life? A lot is held back and even as I approached the final pages of the story, I found more of it unfolding in front of me. Judy Lin holds a lot close to the chest only revealing enough for you to know who really is behind the mysterious deaths throughout the kingdom, but doesn’t give you the resolution you crave.
Because this is a duology and the cliffhanger is nasty. The second book hasn’t come out yet, but oh yes, I’ve already requested it.
I think the only things I found issue with is the magic and world-building. Probably like every other review I write on here, I’m looking for that well-developed magical system that doesn’t leave me with a bunch of questions. This did leave with a few questions especially with how the magic worked. It was a bit…confusing. At one point, I thought I understood it; the shennong-shi are magical people who imbue their powers in the cups of tea they brewed. But then it got confusing when Ning started Shifting and drinking cups of tea I thought were brewed for other people. It was difficult for me to really get my head around, but I think I got it through context.
Overall, this book captured me and after a month of pretty meh reads, I’m so glad to finally have a five-star read again. I can’t wait to see what happens at the end.