Elle is a descendant of a Chinese medicine god, living in hiding from her family, as a person of much lower magical power, turning out magical glyphs needed by agents of the agency that runs the magical side of our world. Luc is a half-elf, and one of the highest-ranking of those agents, working directly for the head of that agency. He’s figured out that her real magical power is higher than her official rating, and wants her to do all his future glyphs. There’s also the small matter of their mutual attraction, which Luc wants to keep casual, and Elle wants to pretend doesn’t exist at all. It’s too bad they both have dangerous secrets that are about to come closing in on them.
Bitter Medicine, by Mia Tsai
Tachyon Press, ISBN 9781616963842, March 2023
Review by Lis Carey: Chinese traditional magic, European fae magic, and the magic of other cultures exists alongside the non-magical world.
Elle is a descendant of a Chinese medicine god. She’s got considerable magical talent, and was supposed to be a doctor.
Instead, she’s working in a magical calligraphy shop, masquerading as a person of relatively modest power and careful to do nothing that would expose the truth, making magical glyphs for agents working for the agency that runs the magical side of this world. She has a regular client, Luc, whom she tells herself she regards as only a “business friend.” It’s just impossible for her to have any deeper feelings for him, because she can’t risk exposing who she really is.
Luc is a half-elf who works directly for the head of that magical agency, as an elite enforcer, and he’s had to do some very ugly things. He also has secrets to keep, but he’s more willing than Elle to explore the attraction between them.
He has also noticed that recent work she’s done for him is better than her official magical rating says it should be, and he wants her and only her doing any future glyphs for him. He also has some special items he wants to commission from her, for a big job he has coming up.
We slowly learn that Elle is in hiding from her family, but especially from her younger brother, and hiding her older brother, who was supposed to be heir to the family’s most important magical legacy. He’s supposed to be dead. The why of this is complicated and understandably riddled with emotion, but Elle takes all the guilt on herself.
Luc is very, very good at what he does, but he’s starting to hate it. But he’s trapped, and sees no way out. He’s also terrifyingly dangerous, and at times it results in levels of violence and blood some may find uncomfortable.
But when he’s not on a job, he’s a different man. He notices a lot about Elle that she doesn’t recognize about herself. She feels responsible for taking care of everyone around her, and feels guilty and ashamed that she can’t make everything work right for everyone she feels responsible for. She doesn’t acknowledge the ways those people have contributed to the problems she’s struggling with.
Elle is stretching herself far too thin, and not taking any care of herself.
Luc is coming to a breaking point, too, though it’s a very different one.
The language here is beautiful, and the characters and the world they live in is unfolded with exquisite care. By the time we learn Luc’s secrets, we’re ready to understand them.
Other characters are also well-done. Luc’s boss, Oberon, is monstrous, but very believable. Elle’s older brother, Tony (no more his real name than Elle is hers), is utterly likable and charming, even when we recognize his role in creating the situation that may kill all of them.
All the cultures involved are treated with respect, and scattered through the book are works or phrases in the characters’ respective languages and scripts. It’s little bits, never enough to frustrate–just lending some reality to the fact that these people really do come from a variety of cultural backgrounds.
I thoroughly enjoyed this.
I received an electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.
Thanks. I think I read a review of this elsewhere, but I appreciate the reminder that it exists, so I can look for it.
I don’t think I liked Bitter Medicine quite as much as you did, but it was a really well done novel and as the start of a series, which it seems like it might be, since there is so much left to discover, I thought it was terrific for all the reasons you wrote about.
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