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Today’s guest is Judy I. Lin! Her debut novel and the start of The Book of Tea duology, A Magic Steeped in Poison, features a tea-making competition, as making tea is a magical art in the world of this young adult fantasy series. Although the first of these two books was just published last week, the second half of the story will be out soon—A Venom Dark and Sweet is scheduled for release on August 23!

Cover of A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin Cover of A Venom Dark and Sweet by Judy I. Lin

On Developing a Non-Combat Focused Magic System and Addressing Issues of Inequality Through Storytelling

One of my favorite genres of movies to watch while I was growing up was the wuxia genre. I enjoyed these movies from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China because they usually featured fierce women and girls who are martial artists. They fought with swords and daggers and their bare hands, and oftentimes they had secret identities — where they had to travel through the world disguised as a man in order to not draw attention to themselves.

But when it came time to write my own stories, I knew I did not want to write about a swordswoman. Someone who was physically confident, who moved through the world with grace. Or even an assassin who was able to sneak around and use poison needles and relied on stealth rather than physical prowess. Even though I liked stories that interpreted what women warriors looked like in medieval Europe or ancient China, it wasn’t what I personally related to.

I grew up with astigmatism and near-sightedness, never played a sport, and my hand eye coordination was terrible. That was why I was drawn to the idea of a magic system based around tea. I was intrigued by the idea of a magic system that was not involved directly in combat, but had other uses in the day to day — healing, fortune telling, etc. In Taiwanese culture, tea is such an integral part of our daily lives. It involves a certain type of ceremony, and I was interested in exploring that type of ritual. What would the limitations of a magic that is tied intimately to ritual look like? What if a practitioner of such magic is found without her tools and ingredients, what would she do then?

The story in A Magic Steeped in Poison examines those challenges. I was still able to pay homage to the wuxia genre I love so much by incorporating Traditional Chinese Medicine into the magic system. Just like in many wuxia books and films, I played around with those familiar ingredients and gave them magical properties. I expanded upon the ritual that is present in the tea ceremony, and was able to include folklore inspired by the stories that I heard while I was growing up in Taiwan. I enjoyed exploring how utilization of supportive and healing magic is a different type of strength, and it can be advantageous for those who know how to use it as much as the ability to use a sword. I also wanted to tell a story where battles are conducted through cunning and knowledge — in navigating court intrigue, sparring with words, and solving puzzles in a magical competition.

Ning, the main character in A Magic Steeped in Poison, is an apprentice to this type of tea magic, but I wanted to make sure that she was surrounded by women who had different types of strength as well. I didn’t want to portray a narrow path of how a girl is supposed to achieve success in the world, because a world where women are only capable swordswomen or a world where women are all magical healers isn’t of interest to me either. Even though Ning does solve the puzzles that she encounters in the rounds of the magic competition, it was important to me that she does not do it alone. She meets people along the way who provide assistance through difficult times, many of them women in power.

Another element I wanted to make sure that I addressed in the book are issues of inequality that is not only related to misogyny and the expectations of women in this society, but issues of class and wealth distribution too. Ning experiences conflicts in the capital because of her commoner status. She is immediately an outsider because of the way she speaks. She is also looked down upon for her lack of knowledge in the way she is expected to behave, as someone who grew up outside of the capital. The competition reveals very quickly that certain competitors, due to their background, are given important advantages that allows them to advance through the rounds without challenges. Ning has to overcome her disadvantage in order to succeed, but without losing sight of why she is there in the first place.

Throughout the process of writing A Magic Steeped in Poison, I enjoyed the worldbuilding aspect the most. In reimagining the stories and traditions from my culture, I was able to connect with my heritage in new ways. I loved being able to tell stories about women with unique strengths and abilities existing in this realm, overcoming their personal challenges despite society’s expectations. I’m grateful I was able to tell a story that is deeply personal, even though it’s set in a world very different from our own.

Photo of Judy I. Lin
Photo Credit: Aaron Perkins
Judy I. Lin 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. 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. A Magic Steeped in Poison is her debut novel.