An interesting setting full of promise that never quite settles on which of two sorts of story it wants to be, and so never quite manages to be either of them.
Is this an urban fantasy adventure story of fairies and magic and longstanding oppressive interpersonal relationships? Or is this a romance where a female main character who has suppressed her own wants, desires and even her very self for years to protect those dearest to her finally finds something for herself (and it just so happens to be an extremely hot guy)?
Er... sort of yes to both. But also sort of no?
In short, Bitter Medicine is a book that hasn't really figured out what it wants to be, and so persists in trying to be both things at once, which has never ever gone wrong in the history of books, as everyone knows, and definitely won't result in narrative whiplash for the reader as the plot swings wildly from side to side and trope to trope. Which is a shame, because when it's not doing that, there's a lot of good stuff in there, but it's either hidden or overridden or contradicted or sometimes just entirely elbowed out of the way for the sake of this strange chimera tone that we have going on.
The story follows Elle, a descendent of Shennong, the god of medicine, who is hiding out in mediocrity in order to protect her brother (and herself) from the attentions of the rest of their family, particularly their other brother, after some magical shenanigans some years previously. She's an incredibly talented magic user, but in order to keep herself on the dl, she is only classified as middle ranking in the magical agency she works for, so can only do a limited range of crafting to fill this niche. However, whenever Luc, the extremely hot and entirely mysterious guy who also works for the agency in an unspecified role, comes in to buy her crafts, she can't help but tweak them a bit to make them work better for him. And of course, that sort of thing can't go unnoticed forever. When Luc realises what Elle is capable of, she's catapulted back into the world of... well of interacting with literally anyone ever, and has to deal with the long-hidden tribulations of her family, as well as her feelings for Luc and her place in the world as it is now.
All of which is really fun, if not exactly groundbreaking stuff. However, the plot of her being found out, having to protect her brother still, use her magic and do adventurous hijinks, as well as discovering Luc's place in the agency they both work for, and deal with some of his own history and adventures, all settles very squarely into your usual urban fantasy romp. There are fights, escapes, escapades, magic to be uncovered, a whole world of hidden magic that mortals can't see to learn about. Meanwhile, the parts of the plot that centre on Elle's history, her feelings and relationships with her family, and her feelings about Luc (as well as his own feelings about himself, her and how he lives his life) feel, tonally, like a cosy but slightly angsty romance. It's not a subtle difference either - it genuinely feels like you're reading two different books smushed together. And in some cases, this could result in something new and interesting in unique... but in this case, what it mostly feels like is that both halves end up missing parts of what they need to make them whole, which is just unsatisfying.
The biggest loss, from my perspective, is in the worldbuilding. For the type of urban fantasy romp we get here, the creation of a world of hidden magic, and an agency controlling how it is used, by whom, and who does what, would be a huge part of the appeal. Rivers of London and Neverwhere work so well in part because we get that fascinating insight into these worlds that are imagined alongside or underneath our own, just hidden from view. They are an opportunity to wonder and imagine what else there could be around us. Urban fantasy, on the whole, is an incredibly setting driven subgenre, after all. But Tsai seems to have just left huge chunks of this out. We never really get a coherent sense of what Roland & Riddle does, or how it makes money, or how it came about, or what it's exactly for. Instead, it exists around the edges, to give us a reason Elle is restricted to less extravagant magics than she's capable of, to give Luc a shitty boss to be beholden to, to give him a job that overwhelms his life, and to give the two of them a reason to have met. But beyond that, we get no sense of scope, no idea what position Roland & Riddle occupies in the wider world. Is everyone magical in some way beholden to it? Or is it a small few? Who pays them? What for? We see missions and rules, but we see no real purpose behind them, and it leaves things feeling scrappy and thrown together, and very much like the setting is only there to support the plot at critical moments. There's no underlying coherence to it, and that feels like an enormous loss.
And it goes deeper than that. We get hints of what these magical people are - some of them are elves, for instance, and elves are somehow different to humans (despite looking similar). And these are different again from people with a godly ancestor. But none of this is every really explained in a wider way, nor do we really get enough in context of the story to put it all together ourselves. There's just... a lot of stuff lying about.
Which makes space for the romance narrative. While urban fantasy stories do often have a romance component to them, the one in Bitter Medicine feels tonally and qualitatively different - and more substantial - than is often the case, and far more like a romance story in its own right. More of a The Midnight Bargain or The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches style, where the common plot beats and flow of the story move differently and have different focuses than your typical urban fantasy. Critically - character development and relationships work differently. But Bitter Medicine manages to short us out on a lot of the character work I'd expect to see in those type of stories - we get a lot of information on Elle's backstory by the end, but we don't get as much of a sense of who she is currently, and doubly, quadruply so for everyone else in the story. Her brother has such an interesting core idea, and could have been a great character, but is reduced to one, maybe two traits. Likewise her best friend Lira seems to have a lot going on... we just never see it.
But hey, we get some really, really long sex scenes to make up for it, so that's... something?
That being said, there are some good parts. The fusion of different bits of folklore from different parts of the world to create the setting, when we see it, is far more interesting than is often the case for these types of stories. Likewise, the magic system (such as we see it), is unusual, and I would have loved to see more. We also get a much better told and nuanced view of the ties that bind us to family, and the tension between the duty one might owe to one's relatives vs to oneself, and how that might bring pain and difficult decisions. Elle is someone with a difficult family but whose situation is genuinely understandable in its difficulty - where often we see the protagonist dither over what feels to the reader like a very simple good/bad dichotomy.
Equally, for all that the intimate scenes, when they happen, are stretched out somewhat longer than their benefit to progressing the story truly warrants, there are nods within them to making things a bit more real, a bit more natural (condoms rarely turn up in books I read, sex scenes or no, and it was a good surprise to see one turn up here). Things aren't film-smooth and perfect, in a way that feels refreshing to read, especially in a setting with characters set up to be so flawed. This isn't, alas, universally true for the scenes, and there are bits that made me a little dubious, but in general, it was nice to see those scenes approached at least in part a bit more relatably.
That being said, this could not really make up for the flaws elsewhere. The attempted blending of two types of story - especially when, as happens here, the both parts are mostly quite tropey and traditional for their subgenre - has not particularly succeeded, and left us with an unsatisfying whole, made all the more so by those moments of interest or innovation. The two halves of the story have ultimately very different end goals, and so it feels like the book has two endings in order to give us both sets of resolution. This has a somewhat stilting effect on the pacing, as an unfortunate coda to the issues we see throughout the book. The world was interesting, the ideas potentially likewise, but it would have been nice to see more of them in a more coherent and pared down narrative, rather than having to watch the two different parts fight each other for page space.
Baseline Assessment: 5/10
Bonuses: +1 for genuinely tense and conflicting family conflict
Penalties: -1 for incoherent worldbuilding, -1 for constant tonal whiplash
Nerd Coefficient: 4/10
Reference: Mia Tsai, Bitter Medicine [Tachyon, 2023]
POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea