They live in Chicago. They’re young. They’re hip. They have tattoos. They can serve you any alcoholic drink you can name, and after last call, when the bars are closed, they go out for pancakes. And… they are part of a magical society, the Cupbearers Court, protecting innocent citizens, like you and me, from being attacked by demonic monsters. That’s the premise of Paul Krueger’s debut novel, Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge.
I mean, come on… we’ve always known alcohol was magical, haven’t we? Krueger’s fast-paced, fun urban fantasy literalizes the idea of alcohol as magic, and bartenders, with their encyclopedic knowledge and their alchemical ability to mix spirits, fruit, botanicals and sometimes fizzy stuff into tasty mind-altering beverages, into wizardly members of a secret society, whose mission is to protect us all from the tremens demons. (Tremens, get it?)
Bailey Chen has come back home to Chicago with a brand new Ivy League bachelor’s degree in business… and can’t find a job. She is reduced to living with her parents, and is desperately courting a tech start-up that is known for its music app. Her high-school best friend Zane, whose uncle owns the Nightshade Lounge, gave her a job as a barback. Bailey is an over-achiever, and she is determined to be the best barback ever. More than that, she wants to be the best bartender ever, but Zane says she is not ready. One frustration Bailey has is that the Nightshade bartenders take a lot of “smoke breaks;” often without warning, often right after chugging down some kind of cocktail; and many of them don’t smoke.
One night, at closing, Bailey whips up a screwdriver. The drink seems to glow, and it tastes perfect. When Bailey is walking home, she is attacked by a tremens (they are drawn by the spark of magic alcohol awakens in humans) and she kills it. Well, actually, more like pulverizes it, because a perfectly concocted screwdriver confers supernatural strength.
Reluctantly, Zane lets Bailey in on the secret life of bartenders, and she becomes part of their society. Of course it isn’t that simple; there is a Holy Grail of cocktails (the Long Island Iced Tea); there is a schism in the Cupbearers Court, and this is Chicago, so you should expect backstabbing, thuggery and skullduggery. And the Sears Tower.
The action in Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge is fast-paced. Krueger has assembled a nice mix of bartenders and even a barista (because in the right hands, coffee also has supernatural powers), and the plot holds together even if I did figure out what was coming in a couple of places. Zane is a fairly flat character, and that’s unfortunate, but part of the reason for that is that the plot moves so quickly that it’s difficult to reveal character in much depth here. What makes this book even more fun is the “bible” of the Cupbearers Court, the Devil’s Water Dictionary. Krueger treats us to excerpts from it: real recipes for real cocktails, that presumably would be magical if we did them right, facts and factoids about spirits, and about former famous members of the Cupbearers Court. Part of the great fun of the story is learning what supernatural ability each drink bestows.
One other thing sets Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge apart from other urban fantasy books; it has the best use of a debris box in an action sequence EVER. That sequence should win an award.
My local independent bookstore put this novel out on their display table that featured a cocktail theme. I riffled the pages and saw the recipes, read one of the excerpts, and it made me laugh, so I bought the book. Krueger dedicates Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge to bartenders and baristas, and says on his blog that it was inspired by his experiences growing up in Chicago (I assume he meant bartending and not fighting off demons in alleys). In one sense, the idea that the folks who serve us drinks and food are unsung heroes, this is an unapologetic message book, and it works great as one.
The story ending is poised for a sequel and I hope there is one, because I want to see Bailey grow into her own strength and smarts; I want to know more about the rebellious Canadian bartender Bucket, and I’d like to know something about Trini. And I want to know a lot more about some of the historical members of the Court, particularly Hortense LaRue. This is the perfect, intoxicating, summer read. Barkeep! Another round here, please!