Book Review: Absynthe by Brendan P. Bellecourt
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Alternate History
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: DAW Books (December 7, 2021)
Length: 400 pages
Fantasy author Bradley P. Beaulieu is writing as Brendan P. Bellecourt for his sci-fi debut Absynthe, an alternate historical set in a version of the Roaring ‘20s which is characterized by futuristic technology. The story follows Liam Mulcahey, a shell-shocked veteran of the Great War, a bitter conflict between the United States and the nations of the St. Lawrence Pact that culminated into a bloody battle on the shores of Lake Michigan. Now a decade later, Liam still finds himself traumatized by the things he’d seen, though much of his memories are also missing, stolen by a nasty head wound.
Working as a mechanic in Chicago, one day Liam was caught up in an Uprising attack while at a local speakeasy. He is saved by Grace, a charming socialite and heiress with the ability to cast illusions. With her help, Liam begins remembering his time serving in the war with an elite military squad that was injected with a unique serum, giving them telepathic powers to make them fight as a more effective battle unit. Shaken by these realizations, Liam must come to terms with what all this means, even as starts regaining some of his past abilities. As things become increasingly complicated by the unrest caused by a hidden power struggle between shadowy factions in the government, Liam must figure out who to trust before those who want him silenced can get to him first.
This was not my first time with the author’s books, though I hadn’t known it was Bradley P. Beaulieu using a pseudonym when I first picked up Absynthe. Still, once I found out, I was certainly glad. His Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was an amazing book, and I’d always meant to check out more of his work. That this novel was a very different kind of beast in no way deterred me, and in fact I felt excited to try something new by the author and see how he fares with another genre.
And right away, it was clear that his talent for world-building had carried through to Absynthe. I was not disappointed by the setting at all, with its vibrant concoction of a variety of different elements. You had the hallmarks of 1920s historical fiction, including speakeasies and Prohibition, smooth-talking tommy gun wielding gangsters, art deco and all that jazz age glitz. At the same time, you also had the more science fiction aspects—the use of highly sophisticated forms of biotechnology, automation and machinery dubbed mechanika adding to the retrofuturism vibes. On top of that, we also had individuals with the ability to project illusions and cast other mind-altering effects. It’s really no exaggeration when I say this book had a bit of everything.
On the flip side though, you always run the risk of weakening your other foundations when you try to do too much, and some of that was arguably happening here, with world-building overwhelming plot and characters. The story itself wasn’t bad, but considering everything that was happening in it, I’d wanted the pacing to be quicker, the overall energy higher. Instead, Absynthe moved at more of a slow-burn not unlike what you’d expect with an epic fantasy, punctuated here and there by brief bouts of action.
I would have also liked to see more out of the characters, because no one really stood out for me beyond our main protagonist. To his credit though, the author made Liam Mulcahey a very sympathetic figure, using his experience to explore the tragedies of war and the silent personal suffering that happens for a lot of veterans in the aftermath. Liam’s desperate search for the truth surrounding his past as well as his possible role in a government conspiracy also had a way of enhancing the mystery. Even in the face of underdeveloped plot threads and general convolutedness, I always felt invested in Liam’s quest, and my desire to see it through was never in doubt.
At its heart, Absynthe is a book about the struggle to find the truth in a world of obfuscation and illusion. And while sometimes the plot can feel as overwhelming as its myriad themes, Liam’s persistence and tenacity in response to the challenges always had a way of putting the focus back on what really matters.