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Book Review: Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang

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From the bestselling author of A Beautiful Poison comes another spellbinding historical novel full of intrigue, occult mystery, and unexpected twists.

New York City, 1899. Tillie Pembroke’s sister lies dead, her body drained of blood and with two puncture wounds on her neck. Bram Stoker’s new novel, Dracula, has just been published, and Tillie’s imagination leaps to the impossible: the murderer is a vampire. But it can’t be—can it?

A ravenous reader and researcher, Tillie has something of an addiction to truth, and she won’t rest until she unravels the mystery of her sister’s death. Unfortunately, Tillie’s addicted to more than just truth; to ease the pain from a recent injury, she’s taking more and more laudanum…and some in her immediate circle are happy to keep her well supplied.

Tillie can’t bring herself to believe vampires exist. But with the hysteria surrounding her sister’s death, the continued vampiric slayings, and the opium swirling through her body, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a girl who relies on facts and figures to know what’s real—or whether she can trust those closest to her.


I came across this book via Amazon Prime First Reads after caffyolay mentioned she had downloaded it as her free book of the month. To be honest, I wasn't that sure it was my type of thing, but the title and blurb were intriguing and the cover so very pretty, plus there was nothing else that even remotely appealed to me, thus, I downloaded it.

I didn't really a have high hopes for the book, but that changed within a very short time. I can in all honesty say it is the best non-crime book I have read in quite some time (in fact it's better than a lot of crime books I have read in quite some time). I have no idea what genre it is, as it's a mixture of historical fiction, romance, murder, mystery, supernatural and maybe something else as well.

I was swept up in the story almost from the off and could barely put the book down. The characterisation was excellent and they were all well rounded and even those I disliked, I cared about insofar as I wanted to know whether they would get their comeuppance.

The murders were so akin to a vampire killing that even though I knew full well that vampires don't (and didn't even in 1899) exist, I found myself on more than one occasion actually believing Tillie's sister and the other deaths were caused by a vampire.

The look into the era and how easily obtainable opium, morphine and even heroin was was somewhat eye-opening. I knew from Sherlock Holmes stories and other such books drugs were fairly easy to obtain, but this book took it to a different level. The writer dealt with Tillie's swift addiction very well indeed and I certainly felt for Tillie and what she was going through - even though part of her addiction was down to her desire for more of the drug.

Tillie was a complex character insofar as she was from a wealthy family and thus expected to act and behave as a lady of that era should and she did to an extent, but she was also far distant from the lady she was meant to be. She ventures outside of her wealthy family and friends and is befriended by a newsie and it is with him she is able to learn the truth about the death of her beloved sister and the other people. In doing so she also gets to learn more about herself and about her family.

It's well written and face paced and keeps you guessing throughout as to just who the murder is and why they are doing what they are doing. The romance isn't front and centre and the mystery element is woven into the rest of the story in a way that makes it different from a lot of murder mystery stories. The author is actually an internal medicine physician, yet the medical parts of the book aren't dry and over-factual.

I have two small 'complaints' about the book. Firstly, the only part of the book that wasn't really interesting and didn't grip me, were the first scene or two - the pages you would have thought would be the ones an author would really work on to grab the reader. For the first few pages I didn't really care about Tillie, in fact she irritated me and I came close to giving up. However, I decided I would give it a few more pages and I really am pleased I did. We are only taking a handful of pages (and Kindle pages at that) but even so. I felt it needed maybe a short prologue maybe even beginning with Lucy's death, that we knew about before Tillie did or at least something to grip the reader from the first page. The other small complaint was the author dropped in several non-English words and phrases and whilst several were explained to Tillie by the speaker, several weren't. I got the gist, so it wasn't a major problem, just a tad irksome at times. But they really are minor complaints.

One thing did surprise me, the use of the word 'fancy' in the British use of the term: liking someone/finding them attractive. A lot of my American friends have commented how much they like the word, but how it isn't used in America. Given the author is American, I am guessing it must be used in some areas or maybe it is a historically used word in America? Anyway, it surprised me. There were also a couple of small anachronisms where modern day phrases crept in, but nothing to spoil my enjoyment.

As far as rating it goes I would give 98% of the 5/5, but it has to be 4.5/5 simply because the opening pages didn't grip me as the rest of the book did and I feel did let the book down just the teeny bit. And to my mind, the opening should be the strongest part of the book, as that's the part that lures you into the book. Maybe I'm just being too picky, after all we are only talking about a few pages. I shall most certainly be checking out more of the author's work, in fact I have already downloaded a sample of one of her other novels.
Tags: books, books: 2021, books: reviews 2021
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