Absynthe – Substantive Themes, Illusory Execution

Quill To Live favorite Bradley P. Beaulieu has started branching out into science fiction novels. He is writing as Brendan P. Bellecourt for his “debut” Absynthe, an alternate history post World War I that focuses on the powers of illusion and questioning reality. The book has exciting ideas and concepts that were brought to life and satisfactorily explored. But, Beaulieu’s transition into a setting based in the real world was a little bumpy, with the book being stuffed to the brim with complicated exposition and politics that bog the otherwise interesting story down with unnecessary weight.

Our protagonist is Liam Mulcahey, a reclusive and shell-shocked veteran with a severe memory issue. Once a commando in the Great War, Liam now lives with a rich childhood friend as their on-call mechanic in their massive estate. One day, Liam goes to a bar with his friend for a birthday celebration and enjoys the new alcoholic fad: absynthe. While most who drink it enjoy a heavy buzz, Liam begins to remember events from the war, including gaining a superhuman ability to create illusions. However, Liam was not the only member of his army to gain these powers during the war, and he quickly finds himself in a battle for his life that is anything but illusory. Can Liam get his memories back, figure out what is happening, and remaster his powers before he is put in the very real ground?

Bradley P. Beaulieu is an incredible author. Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was an amazing book, in particular for its wondrous worldbuilding and rich characters. As Beaulieu stepped into a new space for writing, I think a number of his talents have come over with him to enrich his newest book, but some of his skills did not translate well in the crossover.

The best part of this book is the magic and themes. With multiple characters able to meld perceived reality around them, you get these fabulous illusory battles between illusion mages with very clever and thoughtful uses of perception. The themes of the book go right along with this. All the themes buy into ideas around fake vs. real, reliability of memory, and perception. I found the book to drag a little bit (for reasons I will go into soon), but the ending absolutely blew me away and I thought the reveal was a perfect encapsulation of everything Beaulieu wanted to say with the story.

While Beaulieu is incredible at worldbuilding, his signature style seemed to suffer when trying to step into a setting set in our real world (even if it has a different history). Sections of the book can feel overly descriptive and bogged down by excessive exposition where they would have benefited from a quicker pace. This book is meant to be a mix between action and mystery. While the action is quite good, the overall tone of the book comes out as a slow burn which does not help its flow. In addition, while Liam is very well developed with a nice robust psyche, I found the supporting cast to all be a bit thin on the ground. The support all feel like two-dimensional caricatures that are there to facilitate Liam. Some of them undergo what feels like dramatic personality shifts when the plot needs a different kind of relationship to help Liam recover his lost identity. In the end, many of them just wash out in a sea of sameness and I can barely remember any of their names.

Swinging the pendulum back to the good, the book is stuffed full of originality when you move past some of the one-note characters. The 1920s vibe is in full effect, but Beaulieu has imagined a very different America from the one I was expecting. There are a number of fun set pieces throughout the plot that make great playgrounds for the inventive illusory powers of the cast, and the reimagined technology of the time is captivating in its retrofuturism.

Absynthe, at its core, is a book about finding truth in a world of illusion and weighing the worth of what that truth is. The plot and world are interesting, but the pacing really slows down what should have been a lightning-fast read. I really liked the protagonist, but I can barely remember the name of any other characters aside from his cool robot chauffeur. All of this amounts to a solid first entry into a new genre for Beaulieu with some definite room for improvement going forward. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Rating: Absynthe – 7.0/10

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