A Critique of ‘Absynthe’ by Brendan P. Bellencourt (AKA Bradley P. Beaulieu)

This book is a standalone, Deco-Punk story told in a Prohibition-Era adjacent USA shortly after the conclusion of WW1- a WW1 fought in the USA. I enjoyed this book for it’s prose, setting, plot, characterization and worldbuilding.

What is Deco-Punk? In short, an art-deco aesthetic, perhaps involving Mafias, Prohibition, Post-WW1 depression, Jazz and the like.

Basically, I’d say video games like ‘Bioshock’ and ‘Dishonored’ are Deco-Punk. Similarly, books like ‘The Craft Sequence,’ ‘The Divine Cities,’ ‘Gods of Jade and Shadow’ and ‘Amberlough’ are Deco-Punk.

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing.


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

I am a fan of this author’s. I signed up for an ARC copy of this book. I got my ARC copy only a week or two before release, so I didn’t have time to read it given my fairly crowded reading schedule. Instead I waited for release and bought the audiobook version, and listened to that. I do not regret that purchase.

All that said, you should bare in mind that I am a fan of this author’s work and that I got an ARC. I will not let my being a fan/getting a free copy influence my review, but as this is the ‘biases stated’ section, just remember that those biases exist.


WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

  • Adult, but YA can read it.
  • Alternate History Sci-Fi
  • Deco-Punk, WW1, Conspiracy Fantasy
  • Battle Mechs

READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR

I feel as though I am in this book’s target audience, as a result I had more fun reading this book than someone who is not in the target audience. That said, I feel that this book is an all-around excellently written story.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (4/5 Stars)

(5 Stars= Perfect, 4=Great, 3=Good/Average, 2=Fun but Flawed, 1=Not Recommended)


SIMILAR BOOKS


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

Spoiler time! The first third of this book is a conspiracy novel. The protagonist lives ignorant of ‘The Masquerade’ of a government secret. The secret is that to win World War 1 the government used a mind-control bacterium, which allows certain people to generate illusions with ESP. Since then, a shadowy cabal infected the US population with that bacterium, in a quest to replace the government and take over the world. The heroes must now pierce the illusions of everyday life (a la The Matrix), find the cabal, and free the enslaved psychics integral to their schemes.

This is a good concept.

Execution wise, I thought it was largely well-executed… with one minor problems. I liked the pacing of the first third of the book (during ‘The Masquerade’) and the final third (when every layer of illusion has been ripped away), but I felt that the middle third was a bit sloggy.


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

MAJOR SPOILERS!

I really enjoyed the protagonist, Liam. Liam is a retired soldier from WW1, who suffers from major PTSD and memory loss as a result of his trauma. Liam lives with his Irish grandmother, who gives him useful advice at various points in his story. Nothing to strange about that… except it’s all lies.

Early in the story, Liam pierces the veil of The Masquerade and sees through the illusions of the magic system. He realizes his ‘grandmother’ is a PTSD hallucination. His PTSD/subconscious interacting with the mind-control bacterium to generate this hallucination, trying to heal itself by bringing his grandmother back to ‘life’ to keep him company in his loneliness. And guess what: even after he knows his grandma is a hallucination, Liam still listens to his grandmother’s advice. This was a great bit of characterization, showing the conflict native to Liam’s personality. I simply loved the dynamic between Liam and his grandmother/hallucination.

Similarly, his ‘amnesia’ was caused by an enemy psychic trying to cover up cabal secrets during the war. Liam’s personality at the beginning of the book is really a product of a cabal coverup. Watching Liam recover his memories and true personality as the story progresses was absolutely fascinating.

The antagonist is fascinating.

  • At first, before we pierce the Masquerade, we think Grace us the antagonist, because she leads the rebellion against the government and the rebellion is the enemy.
  • Then the protagonist’s love interest Grace helps Liam see through the Masquerade. With Grace’s aid, we learn that President De Pere is leader of the cabal, and that he killed Liam’s old WW1-era girlfriend Colette.
  • And finally, as the last act dawns, we learn that De Pere, Grace and Colette are all the same person. After Colette injected herself with the mind control bacteria, she suffered a personality break, and created multiple rival personalities. She is now the leader of the cabal, De Pere; the leader of the rebellion, Grace; and also the bacterium hivemind, Echo.

Personally, I thought this was a brilliant antagonist. I really liked how the merging of the theme of mental illness with the ‘magic system’ of mind control and illusions resulted in the multiple personalities. When every layer of Colette’s madness is peeled away and revealed, was I blown away. At points I guessed that De Pere was Grace. Similarly, at points I guessed that De Pere was Colette. But I never guessed that all of them were the same person. I especially loved the twist of the hivemind of Echo- an emergent gestalt hivemind made up of everyone who is infected with the bacterium. But it was all clearly foreshadowed, so these conspiracy twists felt authentic and earned by the narrative.

And finally, the side characters.

They all had personal histories, personalities, friendships, loves, ambitions and memories. They were better than the average Fantasy side character I’ve read over the years. No complaints, they were great.


PACING AND STRUCTURE

I will be analyzing this book’s structure with the three act format.

  • Act 1 is when the protagonist Liam is completely trapped by The Masquerade.
    • The story begins with Liam and his friend Morgan going to see De Pere at a train station for a political rally/vaccination campaign. The rally is attacked by the rebellion. Liam helps De Pere fight off the rebellion.
    • Liam and Morgan go drinking at a speakeasy bar. They drink Absynthe… which has been drugged by Grace. The drugs in the absynthe restore some of Liam’s repressed memories.
    • Morgan suffers a negative reaction to the vaccine. His condition quickly declines, and he needs medical help. But before they can get that help, strange people attack their speakeasy. Liam and Morgan escape, but the people they’re partying with die.
    • The next day Morgan is taken captive by the cabal’s mechs. Morgan feels forced to turn to Grace for aid.
  • Act 2 is everything between when Liam has pierced the veil of the Masquerade and the reveal that Colette is De Pere and Grace.
    • Grace takes Liam into her confidence, and reveals the truth of De Pere’s cabal. Liam takes more absynthe, and remembers more repressed memories.
    • Liam, Grace and the rebellion go under cover (using illusion psychic powers) to try to get Morgan back. They fail, but the learn more about De Pere’s plans for domination.
    • They try to get Morgan again and again, and fail again and again, but each time they gain some information.
    • Eventually they get Morgan back, but too late: he’s turning into a monster.
    • And finally, after a final batch of memory-restoring absynthe, more memories are revealed. Liam finally remembers that Colette and Du Pere are the same person.
    • Grace reveals that she is Colette’s repressed ‘good’ side, as compared to Du Pere’s ‘Evil’ side. Grace tells Liam to go assassinate herself/Du Pere/Colette.
  • Act 3 is everything after that final reveal.
    • The rebellion sends out assassins to go kill Du Pere and end the war…
    • But on the way there Liam is told by Du Pere’s second-in-command that not only does Colette have three personalities (Du Pere/Colette/Grace), but she has a fourth- the psychic hivemind Echo. Echo is the true villain, not Du Pere.
    • Not only that, but when Grace told Liam to assassinate her at the end of the last act, that was really Echo. Echo wants Colette to be assassinated, because if Colette is assassinated, it will free the hive mind Echo from Colette’s moral code, allowing Echo to mind control the entire planet.
    • Liam then captures Du Pere, and saves both of his love interests Colette and Grace from being assassinated.
    • Colette gets some therapy, and no longer has extreme split-personality syndrome.

Pacing wise, I felt act 2 lasted too long. The protagonists went through too many try-fail cycles trying to get Morgan back. First they attacked the dinner party, then they attacked the university, then the pier, then they went to Nova Solus, then they were ambushed… yada yada… it was too much. One or two try-fail cycles would have been good enough. This is a small quibble overall; the book is only 400 pages long, so having a slightly protracted middle isn’t too great a problem.

(‘Try-fail cycles’ are events when the protagonist tries to achieve something, but fails. The protagonist then repeats this plotpoint again and again, failing again and again. The purpose of an author using try-fail cycles is to build up tension so that when the protagonist finally succeeds that that success feels more ‘earned.’)


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

I enjoyed the plot here on both a thematic level. It had a mildly slow start, until the rebel attack on the political rally, and it was slow again when the heroes were trying to regain Morgan. Other than that, I really enjoyed almost every moment of this story.

I enjoyed the book’s tension. Liam was an ethical person who refused to kill people needlessly (his enemies were mind controlled, so killing them would be cruel), so the tension was naturally raised by the fact that Liam struggled to not kill his enemies, while his enemies were actively trying to kill him. I also enjoyed the tension of the unknown: this was a conspiracy story, so unravelling the various layers of illusion, propaganda and conspiracy innately had strong tension to it.

I wasn’t really sold on the book’s stakes. If you read very many of my reviews you’ll know that I don’t generally like ‘the end of the world’ stakes. But that’s a personal taste sort of thing; it bothered me but might not bother you.


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

I liked the author’s prose. It’s beautiful, but not ostentatiously beautiful. Occasionally while reading this, I was left feeling jealous at the author’s skill with the pen.

The book’s tone was serious, but not particularly dark/grimdark.

The book had a theme of control, both direct control (via mind control) and propaganda. It had themes of mental illness across multiple characters.


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

I liked the setting and worldbuilding. You don’t see deco-punk every day. And the whole biological mind control bacteria reminded me of Bioshock’s sea slugs in a big way, along with the battle mechs in this reminding me of the Big Daddies from Bioshock.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

I listened to the audiobook, and it was very good. The narrator did a good job with the accents.


LESSONS LEARNED

  • If you have multiple try-fail cycles in a row, make sure there are consequences for each failed cycle. Perhaps by using the “yes, but/no, and” technique.
  • You can stage acts around reveals of important information. This book is a conspiracy story; so the reveals of secrets worked well as act breaks.

SUMMARY

This is a great book, and at moments excellent. Read it if you’re interested in a 1920’s-inspired story with battle mechs, mind control and mental illness.


Goodreads

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

  1. Studying ‘The Hallowed Hunt’ by Lois McMaster Bujold
  2. A Review of ‘Blood of the Chosen’ by Django Wexler
  3. A Critique of ‘Cordelia’s Honor’ by Lois McMaster Bujold
  4. A Study of ‘Dragon Mage’ by M. L. Spencer
  5. A Critique of ‘Empire of the Vampire’ by Jay Kristoff
  6. A Review of ‘Red Rising’ by Pierce Brown
  7. A Critique of ‘Sharpe’s Tiger’ by Bernard Cromwell

And The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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