Recommended Read, Review Revisited

Review Revisited: Holly’s Take on Bitter Medicine by Mia Tsai (2023)

After Erin read Bitter Medicine, she told me I’d probably like it. And I was feeling like reading something that I’d probably like that wasn’t a bonkers historical romance, so I did. 

She was right, I liked it. 

I also would have written a completely different review than Erin did, because she said basically nothing about the plot. 

So here I am, to talk about the plot. Not spoilers or anything, but to highlight some of the central themes, and also to address the plot structure, which is kind of unusual. 

The basic premise is that Elle’s younger brother tried to kill her older brother; in order to stop him, Elle destroyed her older brother’s magic. The two of them have been in hiding for the past twenty years. (Elle, being magic, is about 100 years old, and hasn’t really aged during this time.) Elle feels tremendous guilt for what she did to her brother, as well as a deep responsibility for keeping him safe—as well as sadness for the rupture in her relationship with her younger brother. She hides her abilities so that she won’t be discovered. All in all, she’s living a shadow of her former life, until Luc makes her feel again.

The blurb says that Elle and Luc collaborate, hinting that this collaboration is in hunting down Elle’s younger brother, who has finally tracked her down. This implies that the Big Epic Climax will be the showdown between Elle, Luc, and the wayward evil brother. And while this scene happens, it does so at about the halfway point, leaving Elle irrevocably changed. So be aware: if you’re reading this for a suspense-y fantasy epic showdown, that’s not what this book is doing. 

Instead, this book is interested in what happens in the after. What do you do when something horrible—something bitter to swallow, even—happens? How do you come to terms with the fact that sometimes those bad things are ultimately good for us? Since the title of this book is Bitter Medicine, maybe it should have been obvious to me that this was the theme, but the blurb and the opening worldbuilding set up my expectations for something else.

I would also like to note that a central theme of this book is drawing and maintaining boundaries with parents / parental figures. It’s never too late to take the boundaries you need, even if you’re 100 years old! Some readers might fight these scenes difficult; others might feel seen in these moments.

Finally, while I liked this book, I do want to say that there were a lot of loose threads at the end. I was left wondering things like:

  • What the heck happened to that fox spirit with the sense of smell? She seemed pretty desperate.
  • If Elle is an “agent” in the same organization that employs Luc, why does this agency also think that Elle is deceased? Do fairies not have fingerprints?
  • And the biggest question mark of all: At the end of the book, both Elle and Luc have lost huge pieces of themselves. Can they truly be happy without these defining parts of their former identities? 

Read on for Erin’s review, which will fill you in on the worldbuilding and the feel of the story.

Heat Factor: the eroticism is more in the emotional than the physical descriptions

Character Chemistry: slow-building and respectful

Plot: ancient history returns to the present, threatening the tenuous and secretive connection that Luc and Elle have been flirting with

Overall: WOW

This book is really something. I think my favorite aspect of the book was that it incorporates a global view of supernatural beings, which really makes sense when we (and the characters) live in a global world, but which almost never happens in books. And I’m not just talking about Elle’s ancestor being a Chinese god and Luc’s half fae parentage; all of the characters are connected to the mythology of their heritage. It was SO FUN. 

Both Elle’s and Luc’s history is complicated and slowly revealed. At first, all we know is that Elle is hiding her true self but she really loves it when Agent Luc Villois comes in to purchase glyphs and stays to chat. And then we know that Luc has a crush on Elle, but his own reputation is shady and his career is…also shady. Then things get complicated when Elle’s past clashes with Luc’s present assignment, and from there the story goes spinning off in many directions as the world is built and Luc and Elle are further revealed. Both are complicated characters with complicated histories from which they cannot fully extricate themselves, and both are also dealing with intense problems in the now. 

According to the internets, this book (in paperback) is fewer than 300 pages, but it reads more like a 400-page story; between the world building and everything else it’s not a fast read. This one’s also not for the readers who are unwilling to Google; between different mythologies and different languages, there’s a lot to take in. Tsai included a note about language, which is another interesting aspect of this book that I liked, but that I like even more now that I’ve read the author’s note and fully understand what she was doing and why. Oh, and it’s in 3rd present. 

Between the story and the structure and the inclusion of ideas and how the problems were solved, this book was just amazing.

I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.

Buy Now: Amazon | Bookshop

Looking for something similar?

Fantasy Romances

Characters who haven’t been completely honest about their intentions

Thoughtful reads (that usually make us go “wow”)

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