Warning: This review contains spoilers.
As a contemporary fantasy debut, Mia Tsai’s Bitter Medicine is an extraordinary and distinct blend of agent thriller, the supernatural, and romance. Although these different elements do get lost in one another, the overall way they play out together is a welcome form of “medicine” for readers craving a groundbreaking work of fiction.
Elle is a Chinese immortal blessed by the god of medicine. Her job is making power-inducing glyphs for a magical agency. She has a crush on Luc, a French half-elf and secret agent who, unbeknownst to Elle, has a mutual crush and comes to Elle seeking her glyphs (and her attention). Luc commissions Elle to customize glyphs for a mission.
The mission in question is tied to Elle’s family, as her younger brother, Yìwú, attempted to murder her older brother, Tony, a long time ago. For agency purposes, Luc has to seek Yìwú out, and Elle and Luc essentially work together on this mission while developing greater feelings for one another.
Honestly speaking, it’s a bit difficult to follow what the actual conflict of the story is. It should easily be the conflict with Elle’s younger brother, but this is glossed over for the most part in exception to the climax, when Yìwú attacks Tony, and Elle must sacrifice her powers in order to save her brother. Everything that comes after the climax is by far the stronger half of the novel, as Tsai probes into the complicated emotions of the characters, especially Elle’s grief over losing a large part of herself, in a heart-wrenching way.
The real focus of Bitter Medicine, however, ends up being the romantic relationship between Elle and Luc, and it’s nothing if not incredibly cute. Tsai isn’t afraid to get into the physical and emotional passion between the two characters, and their humorous conversation is absolutely enchanting. The magical aspects also add a lot to the story, as the characters are able to easily travel to Paris, San Francisco, and New York — settings that visually construct a romantic atmosphere for Elle and Luc. San Francisco as a city, especially Chinatown, is also represented in a vivid light.
Tony, Elle’s brother, is also one of the most memorable characters of the novel. His banter with Elle is witty, while highlighting a necessary and honest perspective on Elle’s life. Tony’s willingness to speak his mind actually ends up furthering the relationship between Luc and Elle; his words give Elle the courage to be proactive in her romantic endeavors.
The incorporation of Chinese medicine and Chinese culture in the relationship between Tony and Elle is a well-done narrative thread. Both Tony and Elle are blessed by the god of medicine, which is an intriguing idea as it pertains to the “healing” nature of a sibling relationship. Elle takes care of Tony after he loses his gift and vice versa. In this regard Tsai does a wonderful job of weaving in Chinese heritage with a more supernatural take on one’s culture and family as a source of one’s powers.
Although the family conflict isn’t fully fleshed out, Tsai does make the aftermath significant. In addition to Elle’s grief over her sacrifice, Tsai also touches on the lack of parental affection; Elle is only seen as a sort of “product” by her parents because of her skills rather than who she is, a dynamic that may be familiar for some members of the Chinese diaspora. This is a conflict that manifests as insecurity later in Elle’s relationship with Luc, and it’s especially refreshing to see Luc convince Elle that she is more than her magic and what she can provide for people.
The magic system is also (literally) spellbinding. The idea of knowing true names — which may be familiar for those invested in fae fantasy — as binding an individual to one’s will is an illuminating aspect of Luc’s character. Although Tsai writes in third person, she consistently switches between the thoughts of Elle and Luc. The writing becomes a bit stiff in this regard, but it also creates a window into Luc’s psyche. Luc’s angst over being bound to agent work (and his abusive boss Oberon) by his true name gives some variation to his character, rather than just being the powerful hot romantic lead.
Bitter Medicine is initially a bit bitter going down, but after finishing the entire dose, it ends up warming one’s soul. This “medicine” is effective, and what medicine could be better than that?