In Bitter Medicine, Mia Tsai creates a world brimming with intrigue, drama, and fascinating little details. There’s magic, spies, feuds, and romance, all of which make for an entertaining read. The spy missions, romance, supernatural creatures, and time-space travel kept me wanting to read more, as did Luc and Elle’s relationship, although the lack of worldbuilding and character development could, at times, be a detriment to the reading experience.
Action-packed, Bitter Medicine follows the love story of Elle, a one hundred and twenty-five-year-old (she ages much more slowly than regular humans) descended from a Chinese medicine god, and Luc, a handsome French field agent with a tragic past. Both Elle (also called Yìyǎ) and Luc work for a mysterious and powerful spy-like agency called Roland & Riddle, though Elle, disgraced due to a magical tragedy of her own doing, now works as a low-level apothecary instead of being a field agent like Luc. Her only goals now are to protect her older brother, Tony, and to remain hidden from her younger brother, William (also called Yìwú). Elle and Luc have a friendly, business-like relationship (Luc buys the magical glyphs that Elle produces) until Luc’s next agency mission turns out to be directly related to Elle. Tasked with catching her murderous brother Yìwú and avenging her brother Tony (a former agent whom most of the world believes to be dead), Luc discovers that Tony is very much alive, hidden away by Elle. Although he’d rather not interfere in Elle’s personal life, Oberon, Luc’s boss, forces him to do his bidding and Luc, ashamed of a violent secret from his past, is helpless to resist. Dragged into the middle of this affair, Elle fights to protect Tony while also attempting to develop a relationship with Luc, with many romantic, chaotic, and spy-related interventions along the way.
Filled with elves, magical people, sphinxes, and gods, Tsai’s world coexists with the regular, human world. Mundane people—as they are called—cannot know about the magical world, although this doesn’t stop several explosions and epic battles from occurring in places like Raleigh, North Carolina. My issue with this world, fascinating as it is, is that it is difficult to grasp, and some parts of it are never made clear. Some terms and concepts are only lightly explained or hinted at, like what a person’s laes is (from what I gathered, an object that holds the essence of a person’s magical powers), what it means to be fae-touched (magical, but how and why?), or what a svartelf is (I never found out). The agency that Luc and Elle work for also lacks explanation: it’s never made clear whether it is associated with some government or some private owner or why Oberon founded it at all. All of these questions suggest that Tsai has a specific and deep vision for the world she has created, but this is not always effectively conveyed. In this sense, the novel reminds me of Frank Herbert’s Dune, tossing you in the middle of things and leaving you to figure your way out, but this time, there is no helpful glossary at the end of the book.
Characters, too, have some big gaps: why does Elle leave her ancestral home in China? How is Luc somehow half-elven, raised in a French convent and later raised by a sphinx, and beholden to Oberon, his shadowy and morally questionable employer at the agency who also seems to have had a hand in raising him? Elle is briefly mentioned to have been a field agent as well, but why she is no longer one is never explained. Luc’s coworkers at the agency also become difficult to keep track of. Climactic action scenes packed with these characters are confusing, as it is hard to remember who these characters are beyond their cursory physical descriptions and what their role is in the story. Some of Elle’s friends suffer from the same issue. Most painfully, Yìwú, Elle’s younger brother and a significant antagonist in the story, pales in comparison to Elle, Luc, or Tony, who are all colourful characterizers. For someone who wants to kill his siblings so badly (no spoilers: read the book if you’d like to find out why!) Yìwú is only lightly touched upon in Elle’s memories before he appears, surprisingly and murderously. Although he was meant to be her best friend, she hardly thinks of him, and in their brief in-person encounters, little indicates their previous connection. Exploring this familial tension more deeply would have added an engaging and profound Shakespearian element of family tragedy to the relationships.
However, some characters shine brightly. For example, Tony is Elle’s brilliant, loyal, and more than a little self-loving older brother, and Tsai does an excellent job showing us this through Tony’s amusing dialogue and actions throughout the book. While he stood out memorably throughout the novel’s duration, the other characters, less important and far less clearly explained, languished in the shadows of a few brilliant people. While this makes some sense for secondary characters like Fern or Gillen, the gap between Tony and Yìwú’s characterizations, both crucial to the story, is unfortunate.
I also leave my criticism behind to praise the exploration of Elle and Luc’s relationship, which takes up a significant portion of the book. For all its action, Bitter Medicine is a love story, and the slow, teasing burn as you wait for Elle and Luc to finally—finally!—kiss is cheesy in the best kind of way. Luc is a dreamy, kind, and romantic guy hidden behind a wall of cold composure and deadly secret agent instincts, and Tsai’s detailed descriptions of his impeccably tailored outfits conjure up an image of an emotionally available J. Crew model, somehow with both a tragic past and a charming tendency to be open and vulnerable about it. But that’s just for Elle, of course, and that’s part of what makes their relationship worthy of a romance novel: only she can make him act like that. Their sweet, funny interactions make you cheer every time the somewhat awkward pair take a step forward in their relationship, and the ending climax, naturally occurring as a consequence of their love, keeps you on the edge of your seat more emotionally than because of any plot action. The characters that Tsai chooses to lavish attention on shine brilliantly, becoming the most believable and likable figures throughout.
I also immensely enjoyed the incorporation of many different languages and cultures throughout Bitter Medicine. Tsai regularly leaves untranslated bits of conversation in both French and Mandarin and explains in her excellent note on language (at the end of the book) that the Mandarin is sometimes in characters and sometimes pinyin, depending on who is speaking. Even the type of quotation mark varies (English quotation marks, guillemets, and brackets) depending on the language speaker. Tsai eloquently points out that, in her own multilingual experiences, she does not always understand everything being spoken around her, and it is part of an anticolonial experience to be able to sit with this discomfort. Not everything must be translated, known, and cataloged into English for some outside observer.
For romance, excitement, and some lingering questions, Bitter Medicine is an excellent book to delve into. Elle and Luc are a dream team couple that manage to keep you rooting for them, despite a number of hiccups—an incomplete-yet-compelling universe and a confusing array of characters, for example, which made full immersion in the book difficult. But Elle and Luc are engaging characters, as is Tony, and the drama and excitement behind their lives made me keep turning the pages. Plus, the story is filled with elves, sphinxes, gods, and an exciting romance, making it a bumpy journey still worth the trip.