Opium and Absinthe
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers (but fewer than usual because this is a mystery, and I wouldn’t do you like that).
Okay, I’ll admit it: I really did not see that ending coming.
I’ve been on a real Victorian novel kick for one reason or another, but this was the first book I’ve read by Lydia Kang, a full-time doctor who specializes (unsurprisingly) in medical fiction. If Opium and Absinthe is anything to go by, Kang is very, very good at planting subtle misdirections that make you suspect everybody but the actual villain. In retrospect, I suppose I should’ve been suspicious of the person who turned out to be the villain, but I was so busy suspecting everybody else that it never actually occurred to me to suspect this character.
This has been on my current reads shelf for a while: I picked it up through Kindle Unlimited, but let it languish for two weeks because I was still hung up on the smell that seems to be baked into my Kindle cover. (Unfortunately, I’ve decided there’s nothing I can do about it because even if I try to blow it off it still comes back over and over again, which is fucking annoying. On the bright side, I’ve learned that the Kindle battery really does last several weeks if you don’t do anything with it.) I’m about to start a huge buddy read with Lori, however, so that finally motivated me to pick up the damn Kindle again, smell or no smell. I’m glad I did, because this book was endlessly entertaining.
Opium and Absinthe centers around a vampire hunt spearheaded by Tillie Pembroke, a reluctant socialite and aspiring journalist who reads dictionaries for fun and balks at the idea of a proper marriage. She is accustomed to hiding behind her older sister Lucy in social situations but finds her protection abruptly stripped away when Lucy is found dead, completely drained of blood and with two tiny holes in her neck, shortly after the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Armed with a copy of Dracula and her latent research talents, Tillie embarks on a quest to find her sister’s killer, supernatural or not, but is hampered by friends, family, and the handful of crippling addictions she began to develop after breaking her collarbone in a riding accident, ranging from opium to morphine to heroin. Along the way she is aided and abetted by Ian Metzger, a newspaper seller and a completely unsuitable choice of beau, who ends up being the only person she can trust.
I loved this book, not only because I’m a sucker for Victorian novels but because Tillie is a whole ass mood. I’ve complained before about heroines who are supposed to be smart but who keep falling into dumb traps that shouldn’t work, and, though Tillie is slightly guilty of this, she is actually genuinely smart. The traps that she falls into can be attributed to her inexperience as much as her overwhelming addiction to the various drugs her friends keep feeding her. The book is set in the 1800s, right before the turn of the century. Drug education is nonexistent. I can understand Tillie constantly falling for the “It’s medicine, it’s good for you!” line, even if I don’t like it. Given her time, gender, and class, her lack of knowledge makes perfect sense. Drugs aside, she tries every trick, follows every lead she can think of, which – considering the restrictions placed on young ladies of the time – requires considerable ingenuity. Her guardians aren’t particularly good at catching her because they don’t seem to expect her to try anything so blatantly improper despite having known her for a good chunk of time, and she takes full advantage of their naiveté. (To be clear, I support this.) During the course of her investigation, Tillie hoodwinks both her maid and the new security guard so well that she is able to leave the house at night more or less at will; gives an unwanted fiancé the slip at a critical moment, and even manages to get him to buy her a typewriter despite his habit of disapproving of her interests; and publishes a newspaper article despite having zero writing credentials. Here’s one of my favorite Tillie moments:
At the end of the week, Tillie pulled herself out of the bed and looked about. Her room was in disorder. Empty bottles of opium were scattered on a tray at the foot of her bed, alongside crumbs left over from two cakes she had eaten. Her damask bed linens were bunched on the floor, the matching drapery pulled shut.
And here’s Tillie getting woken up at the crack of ten:
“It’s midnight,” Tillie protested.
“Mathilda, it is ten o’clock in the morning. On a Tuesday.”
And here’s Tillie protesting misogynistic language:
“I am not hysterical!” Tillie hollered. “I know what hysterical means! I have read about it in the medical encyclopedias. My womb is not running about inside, causing mischief!”
I told you she was a mood. Tillie was very very close to being a perfect storm for me: she’s smart, she’s funny as hell, she’s always learning, and she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty. She’s so devoted to her quest that she willingly contracts smallpox, despite knowing the devastating effects it will have on her health and her appearance. Even in the worst possible circumstances, she’s always thinking of new things she can write about, new articles she can publish. I really have to admire that kind of dedication.
And now, the reason I had to knock off one star: James Cutter. For the record, I never liked James, and I am so sorry there was never any vampire because I really wanted it to eat him. James Cutter is Lucy’s bereaved fiancé, who on the day of the funeral transfers his courtship to Tillie. Tillie, who in other matters is incredibly smart even when stoned, doesn’t pick up on his grossness as quickly as she should. I get it. She’s young. She’s inexperienced. She’s not particularly interested in him as a person, but she does find marriage to him slightly appealing, if only because his social status would put her out of reach of the people who giggle behind her back. He’s handsome and thoughtful(ish) and he really seems to want to take care of her, which would be a lot more touching if he hadn’t told her this:
You’re a sole heiress now. A beautiful and injured little bird. We must keep the riffraff away from you.
You can call me a cynical Millennial if you want because I am one, but it seems to me that this should tell her everything she needs to know about his character. It doesn’t. Her friend tells her flat out that James is set on marrying into the Pembroke fortune, and that he prefers her to Lucy because she’s more compliant. This also fails to set off any warning bells. She doesn’t start doubting James until she finds Lucy’s diary, which recounts an incident in which James hit her during an argument, and even then she continues to place an unwarranted amount of trust in him, even if she’s never really into him. During the course of his courtship, James showers Tillie with compliments and gifts, but he also gaslights both her and her dead sister on a regular basis despite his habit of knocking up apparently every lower-class woman he can get his hands on. To a cynical Millennial who will never see 18 again it’s obvious he has no interest in Tillie and is only after her name and fortune, particularly when he’s dispensing compliments along the lines of “Yours is the kind of beauty that has to be searched for,” to which I said EXFUCKINGCUSE ME?!?!?! (How does Tillie take this? She blushes and thinks it’s an amazing compliment. JUST KILL ME NOW.) The one redeeming note in all of this is that Tillie does not end up with James; he takes exception to her smallpox-scarred face, as she knew he would, and starts pursuing her friend Dorothy. I think he belongs in prison, but I suppose you can’t have everything.
Even with James, though, I really enjoyed the book, and I’m seriously thinking about picking up a print copy. An audio version was included with the eBook, so I’ll probably be listening to that next, and I will definitely be looking into the rest of Kang’s books. Just, you know, maybe not this year, because I have a million other things I need to read. 😭
If you’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel for things to do, here’s my Kindle notes for this book, a.k.a. the literary version of live-tweeting. I fell hard for my Kindle when I realized I could use it to make obnoxious notes all over my eBooks. You’re welcome.