Author: Lydia Kang
Release Date: July 1, 2020
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Victorian Gothic
Buy: Indigo, Amazon.ca, Barnes & Noble
Rating: Book Club It
Disclaimer: There is portrayal of drug use and sexual assault in this novel. Thank you NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for the chance to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
It’s 1899, the Gilded Age in New York City. When Tillie Pembroke, a young American heiress learns her sister Lucy has been killed, her entire world changes. Found with puncture wounds on her neck.
Tillie sets out to determine the truth of her sister’s death. This path of grief, pain, and truth leads her into a world of addiction. Addiction to the facts behind Lucy’s murder and addiction to opium. Tillie begins taking the opium after a riding accident shortly before Lucy’s murder and continues to take it as a way to cope with her pain and with her grief.
As more bodies turn up with puncture wounds, Tillie’s imagination is led to believe the murders are committed by vampires. Fueled by the opium coursing through her blood she sets out to determine the truth. Will she find what she is looking for or will the truth lead her down a path she can’t return from?
You know when you’re on a trend of reading a bunch of books that give you high expectations and then low execution? That’s been me for the past month, just wanting to find a book that I could devour. Opium and Absinthe was that for me.
Victorian mystery. Dracula. Jack the Ripper vibes. Gothic themes. This book had all the elements for a good book that I knew I could enjoy. And it didn’t disappoint.
On the outside Opium and Absinthe is about Tillie, a young heiress whose sister Lucy is killed by a ‘vampire’ and begins an investigation to find Lucy’s killer. Deeper into it, this book is about grief, drug addiction, loss of control, and female independence at the turn of the millennia. When I first picked up this book I thought it was going to lean towards a supernatural story with vampire murders, but instead it wasn’t so much about the vampires, but a story of love, loss and grief set to the backdrop of the Victorian Gothic.
The portrayal of Tillie’s drug addiction throughout the novel was one of the most interesting parts for me. I felt that it set this story apart from other Victorian mystery novels and gave the reader a new perspective into a very real problem during this time period. This addiction was a very defining character arc for Tillie and Kang’s exploration of grief and loss and its impact on addiction was really interesting to read. It added a deeper level to the characters, relationships, and the world of this novel. It wasn’t just your average amateur sleuths hunting down Dracula.
The story was a slow burn, but I was okay with that. Kang weaved together multiple plot lines and characters that all came together in a faster paced and satisfying ending. As I read, this book became less about the mystery and vampires and more about Tillie’s personal journey to independence and the truth while fighting her addictions and a world that doesn’t want her to be free.
As a lover of mystery, I loved spending the novel asking ‘who dunnit?’. While I did guess the murderer, there were still parts of the ending that were surprising and the way it all came together was very well done. Kang does a good job at the art of misdirection of making you think it’s going to go one way and it take a completely different turn.
I did have a couple problems with this book. The first was that it read like a YA novel. It wasn’t until I finished the novel and started doing more research into it for this review that I realized it has been marketed as an adult Historical Mystery novel. I’m not sure if it was the writing style, the age of the characters, or the fact that it reminded me of Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco that gave it YA vibes for me. I think I just expected it to read darker than it did. The book had lots of adult themes and it felt like they were handled in a way more fitting for teens than adults.
The second was the world building. While I can tell that Kang did her research and the world is historically accurate, it still fell a bit flat for me. The story is set during the Gilded Age in New York City. Kang’s description of this felt very light and sometimes I forgot we were even in New York. For a book set in such a vibrant and gritty historical setting I wanted to feel immersed in that world and instead I felt like this book could have taken place during any Victorian time or place. The one part I think she did very well was her description of the ‘newsies’. Her portrayal of the children selling papers to make a living is intricate and the way she uses them in the plot is very interesting as well. The kids were actually some of my favourite characters and they only showed up a couple times.
I highly recommend this story to anyone who is a fan of the Victorian era, Mystery, and Historical Fiction. It weaves together multiple genres and has a fresh take on all of them. It tackles many topics, including drug addiction, gender expectations, class issues, grief, and much more. It’s more than just a murder mystery about vampires, and will be hard to put down once you start.
Have you read this book? Let’s chat about it! Also, please let me know if you have any recommendations similar to this one. I love Gothic fiction.