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Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang

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Opium and Absinthe

by Lydia Kang
July 1, 2020 · Lake Union Publishing


opioid addiction, gaslighting, partner violence, needles, one thwarted rape attempt

Opium and Absinthe is a mystery with a romance thrown in. In this book, a Gilded Age heroine tries to solve the mystery of how her sister died, and who killed her. The book is lush with vampire lore, grounded in social issues, and bathed in the nightmare atmosphere of addiction. While I thought this book could have gone deeper into issues and characters, I adored it overall because of the protagonist’s character growth and by the surprisingly effective mix of the tone of Dracula, the tone of The Age of Innocence, and the tone of Newsies – plus just a teensy smidge of Nurse Jackie.

At the start of the book, Tillie, the protagonist, experiences three horrible things in a row. First, she breaks her collarbone by falling off a horse. Second, she discovers that her beloved sister, Lucy, has been murdered. Third, she is prescribed laudanum, an opium tincture, for the pain. Opium numbs both her physical and emotional pain, and she likes it A LOT, but she also wants to avenge her sister. As her opium addiction grows, she develops a knack for using the brief periods between total intoxication and uncomfortable cravings to research vampires, solve crime, write articles, and score more opium.

Lucy’s death is remarkably similar to the deaths described in Dracula, the novel by Bram Stoker, and Tillie is desperate to determine whether Lucy was killed by a vampire or a human. Her ally is Ian, a young man who is working his way into journalism. Tillie is also courted by Lucy’s fiance, James, who, now that the wealthy Lucy is gone, is intent on marrying Tillie, the next sister in line.

Tillie is so pressured and gaslit by her family, by James, by her doctor, and by various other characters that even without the opium it’s no surprise that she struggles to determine what is and is not true. The keen reader will immediately notice that Ian voices disapproval of Tillie’s opioid use, whereas the ‘concerned’ James encourages it. In a good romance, protagonists bring out the best in each other, and without being yet another controlling person in Tillie’s life, Ian exposes her to more possibilities than living in a gilded cage and encourages her to meet these possibilities with a clear head. I loved Ian as a character and appreciated the way he pushed Tillie to look beyond her horizons while also respecting her boundaries – a tricky balance to achieve.

There is one big exception when it comes to Ian respecting boundaries and I never got over it completely – without being too spoilery I will just say that he shares things about Tillie with other people without Tillie’s permission, and does so in a damaging way. Ian explains his actions and Tillie accepts them as justified, but I did not. I saw Ian’s actions as violating Tillie’s privacy in a way that was resolved much too easily. This wasn’t a deal breaker for me but it did feel much too glossed over for such a colossal betrayal of trust.

One of the interesting things about Tillie’s story is that as a prospective heiress she is simultaneously swimming in wealth and completely penniless. Tillie lives with her over-bearing mother and grandmother who control every aspect of Tillie’s life, especially after Lucy’s death makes Tillie the next heir to the family fortune. Once she starts investigating the murder, she sneaks out at night (she is a prisoner in her own, admittedly very nice, house) to meet Ian. Ian introduces her to a world of immigration, child labor, and poverty – a world of people rich in experience but desperately lacking in adequate food, space, and health care. This is very much a book in which New York City in 1899 is a character.

Ironically, Tillie has to steal from herself (technically, from her mother, I suppose) to provide any help at all to the helpful newsellers whom Ian has taken under his wing, all of whom are children. I thought this book did an effective job of showing just how controlled Tillie was, and how a ‘rich’ person could also be unable to buy so much as a penny candy. However, I wish this book had gone deeper into the realities of the newsies’ lives and also into Ian’s life. This book is exclusively Tillie’s story, and she is the only character with a significant character arc. This story would have benefitted from more of Ian’s point of view, and from a more clear picture of what Tillie’s life might actually look like when she…


Ditches her family to be a reporter and live with Ian. Ian is unhoused for most of the book and remains impoverished albeit with a steady, if small, paycheck which will presumably be supplemented by Tillie’s freelance work.

This book will charm history fans, especially those interested in medical history (be sure to read the afterword). However you don’t have to have an interest in history to be enchanted by this book. Tillie is a flawed but relatable character and I was immediately invested in her journey. The romance is lovely but is secondary to Tillie’s personal growth from someone who is constantly trying to suppress her indefatigable curiosity and become acceptable within a pampered yet stifling world, to a woman who has seen some shit and come out determined to be no more or less than her very own self.

As Tillie opens her eyes to social inequity, and struggles against the limits of her own life, the book combines romance, gothic horror, and a feminist coming of age story. I would have liked this story to have gone deeper into Ian’s life and the realities of the life Tillie would be facing without her family’s support. I also felt that the plot line involving the family of Tillie’s doctor was wrapped up with too many loose ends and with an unbelievable character twist. On the whole, I could happily read many more stories about Tillie, the curiosity queen.

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