• The Good: Diverse magic, urban fantasy, and romance!
  • The Bad: Page-turning and pulpy, be prepared for late nights
  • The Literary: (Untraslated) Chinese and French throughout

Elle has been laying low for 26 years as a B-grade magical calligrapher at a fairy temp agengy, hiding from her family and, in particular, from her murderous little brother. As a descendent of the Chinese god of medicine, she’s destined for more, and allows herself to put a little extra of her power into the glyphs commissioned by her handsome French half-elf client Luc.

Bitter Medicine is a xianxia-inspired contemporary fantasy romance, and there’s so much to love about it. The worldbuilding is diverse, with distinct eastern and western cultures, and, my favorite, a sprinkle of multiple languages. Tsai chose not to translate the few phrases back into English, which I love. It inspires the reader to see through the characters’ eyes and adds to the worldbuilding.

The magic is front and center, but the fantasy elements, the elves and gods and sphinxes, feel as though they are a natural part of the world, which adds to their credibility. The fantasy elements are set in several urban cities, so from one moment to the next the characters are discussing their lives a hundred years ago while also commenting on the rising cost of living in San Francisco.

The chemistry between Elle and Luc rises and falls with larger narrative, and I love their romance. They’re both well rounded protagonists, with Elle’s most annoying feature being that she’s extremely talented but so self-sacrificing she can’t see her own worth. The two sex scenes are quite steamy and emotional, in a good way.

The plot deftly avoids archetypes and cliches, and I’m surprised how often the plot sets elements up, resolves them, and then moves on. Dramatic misunderstandings and secrets are revealed by the characters actually talking things through. The first large obstacle, Elle’s brother, is resolved earlier than expected and new, better challenges arise.

Highly recommended for fans of urban fantasy and fantasy romance!