Absynthe (2021) is the new novel by Brendan P. Bellecourt, the pen name of Bradley Beaulieu, author of the excellent SONG OF THE SHATTERED SANDS series. Talk about a change. Beaulieu leaves the desert far behind to head for the big noisy city in a complex Jazz Age/Psi-powers tale set in an alt-history US.
A decade ago America fought the Great War with the St. Lawrence Pact made up of Great Britain, Canada, France, and Germany. Liam Mulcahey is a veteran of that war, now working as a mechanic in Chicago, hanging out with his best friend and employer’s son Morgan, and taking care of his grandmother Nana. When he and Morgan attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a new train and overseen by the current President, Leland De Pere (Liam’s former commander), violence breaks out via an attack by The Uprising, a group of rebels who seek “to expose the evils the government had committed both during and after the war.” Then, more violence at a party they attend leaves Morgan wounded and the two on the run.
Soon Liam finds himself caught up in the conflict between the rebels and De Pere’s government, a conflict far stranger than he could have guessed, one that is linked to his activity in the war, which Liam had never been able to recall though now his memories are starting to surface. Joining him and Morgan are friends new and old:
- Clay: a wounded veteran from Liam’s old unit who now is part of The Uprising
- Max Kohler: another veteran of Liam’s unit, a brutal man who is now De Pere’s second in command
- Bailey: Clay’s tough as nails wife
- Allistair: a mechanika that worked as chauffeur and bodyguard to Morgan’s family
- Grace: an heiress working with the Uprising
- Colette: the scientist who, Liam gradually recalls, worked on a serum that gave psi powers to Liam’s old unit
- Stasa Kovacs: another scientist, this one working with The Uprising
Absynthe moves at a good pace throughout and on a basic plotting level throws a number of exciting scenes at the reader, such as the aforementioned attacks at the train event and the party, along with more gunfights, tense infiltrations of guarded compounds, aerial combat, leaps onto the roofs of moving trains, and flashbacks to battles from the war. Some of these scenes are further heightened by the presence of inhuman or enhanced humans, such as Allistair’s form of mechanika (Allistair has a Gatling gun built into one of his arms) or far larger and more dangerous war machines called Goliaths. Meanwhile, the slow reveal of Liam’s activities during the war adds a nice bit of ongoing suspense throughout and keeps the reader on their toes with regard to who can and cannot be trusted (including for at least a while perhaps even Liam himself).
But while the plot more than suffices for entertainment’s sake, the strength of the book lies in its subjects/themes. As much as this is a glittering world of high-speed trains, zeppelins, and glimmering green drinks, it’s also a world where mechanika are thrown into dumps when no longer “useful” (something that becomes even more horrific, the more we learn), where (in no echo whatsoever I’m sure) veterans are forgotten once the war is over, leaders take a “win at all costs” mentality, and the country is ripping itself into factions. That glossy candy shell over a rotting core is nicely mirrored by the psi powers that lie at the center of the science fiction element (and it is more science than fantasy) in that that allows for not just mind manipulation but also the creation of detailed, massive illusions that affect entire populations, not just an individual or two. Thus, the question of what is real (or is anything real) is a philosophical conundrum that Bellecourt/Beaulieu spends a good amount of time exploring (it also makes the title drink particularly appropriate).
Somewhat tied into that is the idea of identity and personhood (after all, aren’t we products of both our realities and our illusions? Or maybe, for some of us, delusions?). This comes into play in several ways besides the illusion vs. reality aspect. One is the loss of memory affecting Liam — how can he truly know who he is if he is missing large portions of his past? Is he a product of experiences he doesn’t recall? Or is he a product of only those he can remember? And if he starts regaining memories, is he reverting back to an older self, staying the same, or becoming an amalgamation of selves? What about the mechanika? Are they mere automatons or more? To say any more on the topic would take us into spoiler land, so I’ll just say I appreciated the thoughtful examination of these ideas throughout. I’ll also note that the resolution also adds some depth of thought, i.e., goes beyond tying up plot points with a “climactic battle” where the good folks win, and the bad folks get their just desserts. But that, even more obviously, would involve spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that.
So the plot is exciting, often tense, and richly complicated (I’d say in a good way, but some readers may wish for a little less complexity), while themes are serious and thoughtful. If there’s an element that felt a little weak, and it was only a little, it was the characters. I can’t quite pin down why this is, but they generally felt a little flat to me. Not in the “I didn’t care what happened to them” fashion, nor in a “cardboard cutout” fashion, but they just didn’t feel completely full-blooded to me. Which is maddeningly abstract, I know. But it’s all I’ve got. That said, while I might have felt more fully immersed in the book with a stronger engagement with the characters, I can’t say I felt it detracted from the reading experience. Which is why Absynthe is an easy recommendation.