Sunday 20 November 2022

Neo-Victorian Voices: Opium and Absinthe, Lydia Kang (2020)

I’m all for authors writing about things outside their realm of direct experience (after all, I am a writer of historical fiction!), but it’s wonderful when someone employs expert knowledge from their non-writing career to inspire their novels. In the case of Opium and Absinthe (2020), the latest book I’m reviewing as part of my Neo-Victorian Writers series, author Lydia Kang draws on her medical training as a physician to tell the story of an apparently vampiric murder. 

It’s 1899 in New York City and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) has just appeared in the United States when our heroine Tillie Pembroke’s sister, Lucy, is murdered. Lucy’s neck has been punctured and her body is entirely drained of blood. An empty bottle of absinthe is discovered next to her corpse. But, despite these bizarre details, no one except Tillie seems to be investigating the crime. Even Lucy’s fiancé James is more than happy to redirect his romantic attentions towards Tillie and her mother and grandmother just want to avoid a scandal.

Tillie soon finds herself working with a newspaperman, Ian, to uncover the truth, even though she’s not sure she can trust him. But her investigation is hampered not only by the strict social rules she abides by as an upper-class heiress, but by the taste she’s developed for opium while convalescing with a broken collarbone and grieving her sister’s untimely death.

Kang’s plotting is brisk, and her windowpane prose is highly readable, but it’s the wealth of medical information that informs the story which makes Opium and Absinthe a standout among a sea of other 1890s, NYC-set mysteries. Tillie’s spiraling reliance on opioids is particularly well-wrought, although having a protagonist who’s struggling with addiction can be frustrating (just like dealing with someone under the grips of addiction in real life).

Dracula fans will enjoy the intertextual play at work here—in the character names, the chapter epigraphs, and even the inclusion of absinthe in the plot (a nod to the afterlife of Dracula in Hollywood)—but intimate knowledge of Stoker’s classic tale is definitely not a prerequisite. All in, I highly recommend Opium and Absinthe as a fast, fun read for fans of Victoriana.

Which twenty-first-century-written, nineteenth-century-set novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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