Bitter Medicine by Mia Tsai
As a descendant of the Chinese god of medicine, ignored middle child Elle was destined to be a doctor. Instead, she is underemployed as a mediocre magical calligrapher at the fairy temp agency, paranoid that her murderous younger brother will find her and their elder brother. Using her full abilities will expose Elle’s location. Nevertheless, she challenges herself by covertly outfitting Luc, her client and crush, with high-powered glyphs.
Half-elf Luc, the agency’s top security expert, has his own secret: he’s responsible for a curse laid on two children from an old assignment. To heal them, he’ll need to perform his job duties with unrelenting excellence and earn time off from his tyrannical boss.
When Elle saves Luc’s life on a mission, he brings her a gift and a request for stronger magic to ensure success on the next job—except the next job is hunting down Elle’s younger brother.
As Luc and Elle collaborate, their chemistry blooms. Happiness, for once, is an option for them both. But Elle is loyal to her family, and Luc is bound by his true name. To win freedom from duty, they must make unexpected sacrifices.
TITLE: Bitter Medicine
AUTHOR: Mia Tsai with Natalie Naudus (Narrator)
PUBLISHER: Recorded Books
LENGTH: 325 pages (11 hours 42 minutes)
GENRE: Contemporary, Fantasy, Romance
Queer Rep Summary: Lesbian/Sapphic Secondary Character(s), Gay/Achillean Secondary Character(s), Bi/Pan Main Character(s), Genderqueer/Nonbinary Secondary Character(s).
I’m so happy about BITTER MEDICINE. Often I can get very stressed out by stories where the two parties are lying or misrepresenting things, usually because the reasons don’t make any sense, except as transparent excuses to further the plot. When this happens I either become distressed by the lie(s) or I’ll lose the suspension of disbelief and can’t stay in the story. At all points in BITTER MEDICINE, Elle and Luc are being as honest as they possibly can be with each other (given the constraints on them). As they grow closer they work first individually, and then mutually, to get rid of the barriers between them. In each new stage of their relationship they work to accept whatever obstacles cannot yet be removed. The story is driven by their need to fix their individual problems, gradually turning into a realization that they can help each other accomplish more than either could without help.
Elle's relationship with her brother Tony is loving, but strange, as she feels obligated to protect him but he is amused and exasperated at how much she contorts herself to keep him safe in a situation that she sees as her fault. Tony is a fascinating character, cheeky and irascible, he decides what he wants and goes for it - consequences be damned. I suspect he must be more prudent than how Elle sees him, or else he wouldn’t have survived this long in his suddenly mortal state, but she’s so protective and cautious that if he takes literally any risk she sees it is insensible from her very particular baseline. They're both in hiding from their younger brother who wants to kill Tony (and then probably Elle) in pursuit of a power he can only have if they're both dead.
Luc is lonely and deliberate, turning things over in his mind before making any move. He's also in a brutally uneven power, dynamic with his boss, Oberon, who has taken steps to conceal this from those around them. Early in the book, Elle asks Luc a question which he keeps turning over in his mind, using it as a way to explore the possibility of something other than the way he’s been forced to live for two centuries. Gradually he figures out that the person he's been ordered to find (and likely kill) for his job is the brother who's been trying to kill Elle and Tony. Luc is trying to make up for what he sees as a failure in his past, some thing that was actually less terrible than what everyone else has assumed, but a geas on him stops him from correcting the record, and potentially relieving some of the scorn and fear that others hold for him.
Oberon, Luc's boss, is exploitative, intense, ruthless, and terrible. Long before it’s specifically clear what kind of a hold he has on Luc, he’s casually racist, more than a bit sexist, and dismissive of a particular character's gender identity as part of that sexism. I don’t think that “and also he misgenders people" is necessary in order to mark him or anyone else out as a villain, but the way that it’s done here quickly differentiates him as a nasty character. It also serves to set him apart from his employees who are just hired muscle who sometimes kill people. Where for them it’s a job and a skill, for him it’s an obsession, and extension of his obvious need for power and control. Through whatever combination of power and privilege, he’s gotten to the point where he literally doesn’t have to give a shit about what anyone else thinks, and he wields that knowledge to make Luc's life a living hell as a side effect of his seeming need for control and obedience. Oberon's cruelty is casual, systemic, and occasionally specific.
I like the wrecking crew (a particular group of Luc's colleagues). Part of their early antipathy towards Luc is from thinking that he did a terrible thing which crosses a line for them. The ways in which that story is more complicated are gradually untangled in the narrative, but it speaks well for them that what they think he did would cross lines that are not to be crossed.
I’ve enjoyed this audiobook narrator’s work previously, and this was up to their usual excellent standards. The range of voices is nice and the performance was engaging and easy to follow. The worldbuilding unfolds naturally along with the story, aided by the oscillation between Elle and Luc. Their different backgrounds provide different experiences and occasionally different ways of looking at the exact same bit of the story. I like the context-sensitive approach to a kind of "all the spirits/creatures are real" style of worldbuilding. All the living supernatural entities have an item which connects their powers to their bodies, but other than that they have existences and magical parameters consistent with their cultures of origin. Luc has a true name and can be affected by misuse of it because he's a European-style half-elf. Elle is the descendent of a Chinese medicine god and she often works her magic through calligraphy to create charms. Elle's friend and coworker is a helpful (mostly background) presence, suggesting the shape of a long-term bond without distracting from the current crisis and main storyline. She's also a ghost, providing opportunities to explore a few more aspects of how magic works which are specific to her.
Read BITTER MEDICINE for a fantasy romance about building a better life together, and figuring out how to hold on to what actually matters in the face of seemingly unbeatable obstacles.
Graphic/Explicit CW for sexual content, blood, emotional abuse, violence, injury detail, medical content.
Moderate CW for alcohol, racism, misgendering, physical abuse, toxic relationship, disassociation, gun violence, parental death, death.
Minor CW for drug use, intrusive thoughts, child death.