My thanks go to Head of Zeus for a free copy in exchange for this honest review
Series: Absynthe (#1)
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Genre: Alternate History
Publication Date: 09/12/2021
Chicago: 1928. But not the one you know. The Great War between the United States and the nations of the St. Lawrence Pact is over, but the scars of war remain. And one former solider, Liam Mulcahey, is about to discover that the scars go deeper than anyone could have imagined . . .
Where to begin with Absynthe? That’s a difficult question, because there is a lot packed into this book’s four-hundred pages. Let’s start with the cover, which is the perfect indication of the sleek, jazz-era story you’ll find inside. As an aside, it also looks very festive. Perfect for a December release. But back to the jazz. Now, I don’t know a whole lot about 1920s American culture, despite Call of Cthulhu’s best efforts. I’m very much a casual reader in this regard, and those with more knowledge of the time might have a different reaction, but from my perspective, Bellecourt nails the tone. His Chicago is a realm of speakeasies, musicians, and corruption. Right out of a gangster film.
But then you have the speculative elements. Right on the first page we have mechanika. In another word: Robots. They’re everywhere, from automated drivers with personalities of their own, to massive constructs used to fight in wars. One war specifically. because in this version of history, the Great War was between the United States on one side, and Germany, France, Britain, and Canada on the other. The reasons for this conflict are detailed later in the book, but I have to say the worldbuilding is neatly twisted. Honestly, I would read a dozen novels following this timeline.
But the war does bring one issue to the book, and it’s a personal bugbear of mine. Liam is suffering from a faulty memory, you see, and has constant flashbacks to the war. In the second half of the book, these flashbacks are neatly separated by chapter breaks. But early on? Early on they break through the middle of other scenes, throwing you from 1928 to a decade earlier. It is supposed to be disorienting, showing us how thrown Liam is by these odd memories, but it also makes chronology hard to keep tabs on. Which is a shame, because what happened in the war is so very interesting, and key to understanding the story. These flashbacks also involve scenes that Liam did not experience personally, and the way Bellecourt handles that is inspired.
One idea this book plays with is how perception and reality are not always the same. Alternative history is perhaps the best genre for this, because the setting is at once familiar and very alien. After all, if the great War took a different path, who are we to judge what is real and what is not? I won’t go into the full details, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that illusions and the twisting of reality had a fairly plausible explanation. Filtered through the lens of the nineteen-twenties, there’s a scientific investigation angle that both horrifies and intrigues. Again, I don’t know exactly what people in 1928 thought about these things, but the way the characters go about looking for answers? That is something I loved about this book. Science and horror, walking hand in hand , just as they so often have throughout history.
Absynthe is a hard to book to get a handle on. It combines genres, ripping up rulebooks along the way. There were points early on that I thought we were headed into urban fantasy territory, but then we swung back into hard SF. The value of originality are often oversold, but by taking so many elements, Absynthe creates something better. Something unique. There is, I believe, a sequel in the works for next year, and I for one can not wait to see where Bellecourt takes his alternative history next.