Absynthe by Brendan P. Bellacourt
Some it kills.
Others it transforms.
See beyond the illusion.
The Great War has been over for years, and a brave new world forged. Technology has delivered the future promised at the turn of the century: automata provide, monorail trains flash between mega-cities, medicine is nothing short of magical. Liam grew up poor, but now working for one of the richest families in Chicago, he reaps the benefits of his friendship with the family's son and heir. That's why he's at Club Artemis. It's a palace of art-deco delights and debauchery, filled to bursting with the rich and beautiful - and tonight they're all drinking one thing. Absynthe. The green liquor rumoured to cause hallucinations, madness, even death. While the gilded youth sip the viridescent liquid, their brave new world is crumbling beneath its perfect surface. Their absynthe is no mere folly. Some it kills, others it transforms. But in Liam something different has taken place. A veil has lifted and he can see the world without its illusion - and it isn't the perfect world the government want the people to believe.
'A complex feat of world-building that raises evergreen questions of truth and power with dizzying verve' Daily Mail
This is my initial foray into the writing of Bradley P. Beaulieu, who has a fairly large fantasy back catalogue. However, with Absynthe, he is writing as Brendan P Bellacourt for his Sci – Fi debut. Originally touted as mixture of Inception, Deco – punk by the way of the Great Gatsby, this grabbed my interest by the throat and when I was offered a copy to review by the publishers, Head of Zeus, I literally bit their publishing hands off.
The story is set in an alternate version of the 1920 ‘s, which whilst it has familiar feel to it, such as prohibition etc, it is vastly different. This version of history is populated by advanced technology, mechanoids, hoppers and speeding trains. Not only that, there is a version of The First World War, but in this reality, America has fought a war against The St Lawrence Pact, a treatise of the other countries in the world, such as Great Britain, Germany and Canada, to name a few.
Absynthe tells the story of Liam Mulcahey, a veteran of the Great war, who is now working as a mechanic for the Aysana family. However, the Aysana family are more than just his employers, their son, Morgan is Liam’s best friend and has been a rock to Liam after he has returned from the war with amnesia and very few recollections of his time in the army.
We start the story by learning that there is civil unrest in this version of America and that the Uprising, who believe that President Leland De Pere is far from the perfect president that he portrays himself to be, is attempting to subjugate the People of that great nation. In their attempt to overthrow his rule they have attacked on a number of occasions and in a variety of methods. The worst being an attempt to poison the people. As a result, a serum has been developed and it is rolled out at a civic celebration of the scientific might of America with the unveiling of a new type of train.
Whilst at the gathering, the vaccination is rolled out to the people to protect them, and several of the celebrants are given the serum, including Liam’s friend Morgan. However, the celebration is cut short by an unforeseen attack by the uprising, where Liam witnesses something quite strange goings on.
He puts this down to the effects of his mental health difficulties as a result of the war, and dismisses it out of hand.
Later, in the week he joins Morgan and his friend at a local speakeasy for a night of carousing and cavorting. There he meets the beautiful socialite, Grace. Whilst engaging in this impromptu party, Liam is persuaded to partake in the drinking of Absynthe. The substances hallucinogenic properties affect each of the group of friends in a different way. However, whilst at the speakeasy, the club is again attacked by Uprising forces, resulting in the deaths of a number of the people that frequent the club, Liam and Morgan escape with the aid of the family Mechanoid, Alistair, who save the heir to the Aysana fortune and carries him away.
Following this, inexplicable incidents begin to occur. Morgan becomes increasingly ill, and after visiting the family doctor, they are pulled over by what they think is the police but are subsequently attacked again by forces unknown. They become wanted felons and find themselves plunged into a web of intrigue, resulting in the kidnapping of Morgan.
Liam learns that things are not as they seem, and after a mind-altering attack by unknown forces, including the right-hand man of the President himself. Liam begins to suspect that the Uprising may have a point. He is subsequently saved by Grace and is recruited by the Uprising, who agree to help him find Morgan.
In Absynthe, Brendan P. Bellacourt presents a beautifully crafted and intricate world, that it is at once familiar as it weaves in aspects of 1920’s America with what we would expect from a novel set in that period, such as women in fancy flapper dresses, speakeasys, seductive smoky jazz joints etc, with more science fiction aspects juxtaposed into the environment. Rather than being a marriage of convenience, the two are interwoven and connected gorgeously, each coinciding to give a sumptuous stylistic evocativeness to the story.
The use of the ritualistic aspects of drinking Absynthe as an almost mystical transition of two different worlds works marvelously. And yes, it does have that Matrix aspect to it, but this is an effective device which gives the story its depth.
Furthermore, there is a synthesis of different types of story here. Throughout the book there is an engaging action/adventure story, coupled with the mystery surrounding the disappearance of key members of the plot and how this impacts on the story.
There are a number of plots and subplots running throughout the book, and whilst the main story revolves around Liam’s search for Morgan, the romantic aspects of Grace and Liam, and evil conspiracies, there is also the treatment of veterans after war, which is encapsulated in Alistair’s story.
The main protagonist. Liam is not what I expected. He is not the ‘all flashy’ action hero that blazes his way through the story. He is damaged, his memories shot to pieces. He cares deeply for those around him, and is able to accept that the situation that he finds himself in is not purely black and white, good versus evil.
The device of using Liam’s gradual reawakening of his memories provides both an effective backstory to the events that are affecting the world today, but they also move the plot on effectively and shed light on the mystery that is unfolding at the heart of the story.
Absynthe captivated me with its gripping action, a beautifully intricate backdrop, mind bending mystery and fantastic characters.
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