Disclosures: I read this book via my Kindle Unlimited account. The review below may contain affiliate links.
Title: Opium and Absinthe (Kindle version)
Author: Lydia Kang
Release Date: July 1, 2020
Genres: Historical fiction, thriller, mystery
Star Rating: 5/5
Admittedly, I appreciate Jane Austen’s wit and storytelling, but books about 19th century society have never been my cup of tea. However, I absolutely loved the Victorian mystery Opium and Absinthe--it combines the social satire, romantic subplots, and spirited heroine of Austen with murders and plot twists of the era’s penny dreadfuls. It balances its sweet and bitter elements in a way that many authors try to reach without success.
In Lydia Kang’s novel, teenage heiress Tillie Pembroke lives in her domineering grandmother’s mansion, where she has only one friend: her sister, Lucy. To everyone else, Tillie fails at anything expected of an 1899 socialite: eating, speaking, or even riding a horse. So after Lucy is found dead with puncture wounds on her neck, Tillie decides that behaving “unacceptably” and finding her sister’s killer, even with a badly broken collarbone, is better than doing nothing at all. She uses her endless resourcefulness, friendships with destitute paperboys, and any vampire lore she can find to uncover the truth—even if it’s unladylike.
It feels as though it’s impossible to genuinely know many of the people in the upper social strata, because everyone except its heroine adheres strictly to the social norms of the period. Tillie’s family, rich friends, and servants are fully fleshed out and feel real, but they’re unable to return her frankness and openness of feeling. This lends itself well to the mystery surrounding Lucy’s death; the reader can never be sure if they’re reticent because they fear being ostracised, or whether they have something sinister to hide. In contrast, Tillie is genuine and easily likeable, even as she commits social gaffes, relies too heavily on laudanum, and sometimes unintentionally makes life worse for those around her. Her curiosity, strong will, and refusal to submit to the demands of her family and society around her are admirable and often lead to humor.
Even the love interests, maids, family members, and possible suspects in Opium and Absinthe have backstories woven into the narration and hinted at by side characters. Both the rich and poor neighborhoods of New York City feel as vivid as its populace, and the contrast of settings is instrumental to Tillie’s growth as a character. The changes of rules and behavior in public and private settings, and the lack of privacy even in Tillie’s home, help to keep the tension high and the reader guessing throughout the plot.
I often guess the solution to a mystery early on, but I was surprised by this one’s eventual end. I also usually dislike romantic subplots, but found myself cheering Tillie and one of her love interests on. I would recommend this to any reader enjoys slightly darker reads with a strong female lead character—especially those who are tired of clichés often found in literature for women.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte – for a dark 19th century tale, with brooding men and tragic women
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires: A Novel, Grady Hendrix – for underappreciated women being gaslit as they investigate vampiric activity in a 1990s upper-class neighborhood
The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, Deborah Blum – nonfiction that describes just how hard it was to find justice for crime in earlier American times
Content warnings: attempted sexual assault, drug addiction, domestic violence, some gore.
Reviews of horror, nonfiction, and other genres from a life-long lover of books.