Review | Absynthe – Brendan P. Bellecourt

About the Book

In his sci-fi debut, Bellecourt explores an alternate roaring 20s where a shell-shocked soldier must uncover latent telepathic abilities to save himself and the people around him.

Liam Mulcahey, a reclusive, shell-shocked veteran, remembers little of the Great War. Ten years later, when he is caught in a brutal attack on a Chicago speakeasy, Liam is saved by Grace, an alluring heiress who’s able to cast illusions. Though the attack appears to have been committed by the hated Uprising, Grace believes it was orchestrated by Leland De Pere–Liam’s former commander and the current President of the United States.

Meeting Grace unearths long-buried memories. Liam’s former squad, the Devil’s Henchmen, was given a serum to allow telepathic communication, transforming them into a unified killing machine. With Grace’s help, Liam begins to regain his abilities, but when De Pere learns of it, he orders his militia to eliminate Liam at any cost.

But Liam’s abilities are expanding quickly. When Liam turns the tables and digs deeper into De Pere’s plans, he discovers a terrible secret. The same experiment that granted Liam’s abilities was bent toward darker purposes. Liam must navigate both his enemies and supposed allies to stop the President’s nefarious plans before they’re unleashed on the world. And Grace is hiding secrets of her own, secrets that could prove every bit as dangerous as the President’s. 

400 pages (hardcover) 
Published on December 7, 2021
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This audiobook was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

I’m a big fan of Bradley P. Beaulieu (writing under the pen name Brendan Bellecourt here), but when I heard about this book, my excitement really moved to a whole other level. I have a huge interest in books that are set in a time similar to/in the 1920s. I saw “speakeasies” and went all Liz Lemon ala 30 Rock, “I want to go to there.” Thankfully, I apparently annoyed the appropriate people the appropriate amount of times, because the next thing I knew, the author was sending me an audible code for the book. 

I will say, I loved the narration on this audiobook. It was really easy for me to sink into the story. I usually listen to audiobooks while I do things around the house (when I take editing breaks during my workday, and cook dinner and the like), and I found myself actually wanting to prolong my cleaning/cooking/whatever just so I could listen to the book longer. Simon Vance is basically one of those narrators who could read a phonebook and I’d be one-more-paging that sucker until hell froze over. The combination of his dulcet voice and the story itself really delivered a one-two punch that knocked this one out of the park. 

One of the first things that stuck out to me regarding Absynthe was the worldbuilding. There are so many different ideas stuck together in a world that, upon first glance, feels too busy to work but once I got into the book, I saw how well all these ideas fit together. A brief glance through reviews so far will show you that elements of this book are being compared to the Pacific Rim, “decopunk”, steampunk, alternative history, and more. There’s a lot going on, and while it can get busy at times, the author has a knack for synthesizing ideas, playing with new concepts, making things that shouldn’t work, work. Nothing in this world was what I expected it to be, and all of it was so carefully executed, I was left with a newfound appreciation of just how profoundly SFF authors can break boundaries. 

There’s a real interesting synthesis of ideas here, from tommy guns and speakeasies to zeppelins and performance-enhancing biotech. There’s some aspects that will immediately put readers in the mind of the 1920s, like flapper dresses and the jazz age excitement of a big, metropolitan area. Then there’s other elements that will make you think “steampunk” or “Pacific Rim”. It was a really interesting blend of different ideas which all merged together to create a world that was instantly gripping, and absolutely unlike anything I have ever read before. 

But, while there is a lot of potential for action, and there is action, this book isn’t really about that. At least, in my mind, Absynthe felt a bit more thoughtful, a bit more measured. This world, while fantastic and captivating, is balanced by a bit of darkness as well. A lot of this book, in my mind, was an exploration of some of the results of war we rarely see in books like this. This careful exploration of poignant emotional and social themes really balanced out some of the larger-than-life worldbuilding elements, grounding them in a reality many of us will find one uncomfortable step removed from our own. 

And maybe that’s where the book the was the most enjoyable for me. I enjoy stories that make me think, explorations of deep themes through the eyes of characters I can really relate to, or feel for. Here, in this world, so much is amazing and wonderful, and yet it doesn’t take long for readers to realize that things aren’t all that great. Veterans are forgotten about and go through life with conditions like PTSD, or have wounds healed with mechanical implants and devices, which present their own host of problems. People are injected with mysterious serums. The citizens of this United States are breaking into factions. Tensions are rising. People are beginning to distrust each other, and the government. There is a very pervasive feel that everything is falling apart, unraveling, and into this milieu, we have our character, one Liam Mulcahey. 

Liam really stuck out to me. He, like so much of this book, wasn’t what I expected. A thoughtful character who wasn’t afraid to feel, it’s his perspective that really humanizes many of these deeper themes, and layers them into Bellecourt’s unique world in a way that felt pretty natural. Through Liam, some of the ideas, themes, aspects of the world that shouldn’t have worked, actually did work, because he made it all make sense. He was the bridge that spanned these waters, allowing readers to connect the flashy worldbuilding with these deeper issues, like the slow degradation of the social order, the unravelling of trust, the personal, human cost of war.

At its core, this book is a mystery, and it is quite fast paced at that. Liam, a war veteran, unexpectedly finds himself in the center of tension and change. He has to make pieces fit and find answers to seemingly unanswerable questions. He finds himself immersed in a situation that’s far larger and deeper than he ever imagined. Ultimately, this journey is profound, as it forces him to question everything from his leaders to his society, to his most important relationships, to himself. Nothing is what it seems to be, and the truth he finds, the truth he is chasing, is far more more pervasive than I anticipated. This book kept me guessing throughout, with no shortage of “ah ha” moments as the clues Bellecourt wove throughout his narrative clicked into place. 

So, where does this leave us? 

Absynthe is a fast-paced, wild ride through a stunningly crafted world, but it was the deeper themes and the sympathetic protagonist that truly captivated me. This book is as much a mystery as it is an exploration of the often-overlooked, uncomfortable human cost of some of our actions. Bellecourt managed to write a story that balanced on the knife’s edge between flashy and thought provoking, displaying, for all to see, why he is a master of his craft.

5/5 stars