Tuesday, 30 August 2022

Review: Bitter Medicine

Bitter Medicine Bitter Medicine by Mia Tsai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A capably written fantasy/romance with a strong element of Chinese mythology, something I tend to enjoy despite not having much familiarity with the source material.

Even in the pre-publication copy I received via Netgalley, the editing is good, with just a few very minor mistakes. As is often the case, that's accompanied by assured prose and a well-plotted, well-paced story. It's clear from early on what the protagonists' goals are, which drives the plot forward, but it's not clear how they will achieve them, which keeps up suspense. They work hard and sacrifice and make tough choices and call on allies to help them - in other words, they protagonize, they don't get handed fortunate coincidences to get them to the goal. Along the way, they feel things deeply, but they didn't come across to me as whiny, which is an easy trap to fall into when your characters experience strong emotions over legitimately terrible life events.

There were a couple of issues that kept the book out of the gold tier of my Year's Best list. Firstly, the Agency for which the protagonists both initially work is nebulously and inconsistently defined. It's not a government agency or bureau, because the supernatural world doesn't (apparently) have a government, but it's referred to as the Agency, and part of it is called the Bureau, and it operates in most respects exactly like a government agency (or bureau). And yet at the same time it's a company with a business model that's conspicuous by its absence, founded by Oberon (who is the world's worst boss); and Elle, the female protagonist, while known as "Agent Mei," appears to be part-owner of a business that operates somehow within the larger company, supplying magic to other agents. She's a cross between Q and an independent shopkeeper. It doesn't feel like it's been thought through all the way.

The other thing that challenged my suspension of disbelief is that, apart from the fact that she is technophobic, Elle reads very much as someone born in the US in the late 20th century, not (as we are told) in China in the late 19th. It's not as bad as, say, the first Iron Druid book, where the protagonist is supposedly 2000 years old, but both looks and acts 20, but I did notice it. Elle's supernatural age is largely what I've decided to call a character decal: stuck on the outside rather than integrated into the design, like those toy cars that have stickers portraying windows rather than actual windows. You see it a lot in steampunk and gaslight fantasy, where the heroine has a decal that says she's brilliant and independent, but actually keeps making the most stupid decisions imaginable and having to be rescued by a man (and at least Elle is very far from that; she rescues the hero first before he rescues her, and then they conspire to rescue him again).

Those two issues, while they reduced my enjoyment slightly, certainly didn't damage it fatally. This is a fine piece of writing, and I'd happily read a sequel.

Two warnings about the content: the sex scenes do get graphic, and there are a few untranslated Chinese characters, transliterated Chinese words, and French sentences dropped throughout, which the author discusses in an afterword (it's a deliberate choice, for a good reason). If you're reading on a Kindle, it can translate for you, though you won't miss anything vital by not having them translated (again, by design). If either of those things is a dealbreaker for you, this probably isn't your book, but if, like me, you're fine with them, I recommend it.

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