Book Review

Opium And Absinthe

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me an ARC. All opinions are my own and have been provided voluntarily.

Opium and Absinthe

  • Author: Lydia Kang
  • Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
  • Publication Date: July 1, 2020
  • Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

TRIGGER WARNING: murder, gaslighting, addiction, domestic violence, forced sedation, off-page sexual assault

Rating: 5 out of 5.

New York City, 1899. Tillie Pembroke’s sister lies dead, her body drained of blood and with two puncture wounds on her neck. Bram Stoker’s new novel, Dracula, has just been published, and Tillie’s imagination leaps to the impossible: the murderer is a vampire. But it can’t be—can it?

A ravenous reader and researcher, Tillie has something of an addiction to truth, and she won’t rest until she unravels the mystery of her sister’s death. Unfortunately, Tillie’s addicted to more than just truth; to ease the pain from a recent injury, she’s taking more and more laudanum…and some in her immediate circle are happy to keep her well supplied.

Tillie can’t bring herself to believe vampires exist. But with the hysteria surrounding her sister’s death, the continued vampiric slayings, and the opium swirling through her body, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a girl who relies on facts and figures to know what’s real—or whether she can trust those closest to her.

I knew right from the first few pages that I liked Tillie’s character. She’s a young heiress in NYC high society, but she doesn’t quite fit in — she’s awkward and clumsy, and prefers research and learning to gossip and parties. Within the first few pages, she experiences a traumatic fall from a horse and breaks her collarbone.

While she’s recovering from her injury, Tillie manages to get herself mixed up in all kinds of drama. She quickly becomes addicted to the laudanum the doctor gives her, discovers that her sister was murdered, and starts reading the newest book hitting the shelves — Bram Stoker’s Dracula. When another body turns up, and the police aren’t doing much to solve these crimes, Tillie decides to take matters into her own hands.

Tillie is smart and brave, and there’s definitely something about a historical fiction where a young woman bucks societal expectations that always appeals to me. It was hard not to root for Tillie, even as she spiraled further into addiction. I think it is an especially important (and timely) issue to address, as our society faces the fact that addiction isn’t something that just happens to [insert specific group here]. While the story takes place in 1899, it is hard to find someone today who can’t put a face to addiction. Most of us personally know someone who has struggled with addiction, or have dealt with it ourselves. Many of us have lost a loved one. Even back then, high society ladies like Tillie had addictions. I love that the author didn’t shy away from that.

There’s definitely a strong gothic mystery theme throughout the book, and I couldn’t ever guess the twist. Just when I thought I had my finger on whodunit, something else would happen and I realized that my assumption was all wrong. No one was quite who they seemed, but the story developed well, and I was hooked right from the start.

One thing that I especially appreciated was the positive representation of the Jewish character, Ian (and his cousin, although to a lesser degree simply because he isn’t featured prominently). Ian was represented really well as a Jewish diaspora character. The use of Yiddish was accurate, well-done, and interspersed in the text in natural conversation. I grew up in a home where both of my parents spoke Yiddish fluently, and would randomly drop Yiddish terms and phrases into conversation, just like Ian did.

Tillie was a woman ahead of her times, and I really enjoyed seeing her journey throughout the book. The mystery held my attention and I couldn’t wait to figure out who was behind the murders. Even the supernatural element and the overlapping elements with Dracula were done really well. Overall, this book was a hidden gem, and I highly recommend it. So get out there and give it a read!

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