Mostly what I learned from Paul Krueger’s LAST CALL AT THE NIGHTSHADE LOUNGE is that some books simply don’t work for me. That’s not a reflection on the book’s merits, just that some books are pitched at a frequency I don’t pick up. Usually that’s a matter of the genre being one I dislike, but this book shows it can be other things too.
THE STORY: Bailey, a Chinese American newly graduated from college is stuck living with her parents and working as a barback in the Nightshade. Then she discovers bartenders are part of an ancient society of “Alechemists.” Drunk humans attract evil spirits, the tremens; bartenders brew magical cocktails that give them superpowers to fight the demons. Bailey becomes a rookie in the Alechemists, but is that what she wants for a career path? And is the organization really on the up-and-up?
WHAT I LEARNED: Like I said, some books are just not a good fit for me. I suspected it might not be when Krueger described the premise at Illogicon, but it seemed a shame not to try a fantasy by someone I’d actually met.
The reason I doubted Nightshade Lounge would work for me is that I’m not a drinker. I find most booze tastes awful, it stimulates my acid reflux and I don’t get buzzed, just depressed and numb. There’s no fun in it for me. And as I suspected that took the fun out of the premise. There are several sections from an Alechemist’s grimoire discussing the lore of the various drinks and while a lot of readers loved them, I just skipped over them.
That said, the book might have held me with the characters, who seem an appealing lot. And I like that there’s a fair mix of diversity in the cast (one trans person, one deaf, Bailey herself) just treated matter-of-factly. But unfortunately the book is “New Adult” (unlike the premise I didn’t know that before picking it up); the character arc is primarily Bailey, the new graduate, struggling to get a life. And that just didn’t interest me — not because Krueger did it wrong, coming of age stories leave me cold, whether they’re tweens, teens or twentysomethings.
Possibly this reflects my being, well, old. My twenties are far behind me. Though I don’t recall I’ve ever liked coming of age stories in print (on TV or in movies, they can work for me) at any age. Certainly my own stories with twentysomething protagonists don’t deal with the real-world challenges of having to start adulting. It just doesn’t grab me.
I did like the emphasis on the hard work the bartenders put in on the job, and Bailey’s distaste for a couple of friends whom she sees treating bar staff with contempt. I’m glad that despite the “new person enters supernatural world” Krueger didn’t bury me in exposition (I’ve seen that happen often enough). I didn’t particularly like the tremens, who are uninteresting horrors. But overall I don’t really have a critical analysis to offer, only personal taste.
I don’t think Krueger made a mistake building a fantasy novel around drinking, something which I’d guess the vast majority of readers indulge in. Several of the positive reviews I’ve seen were “What would be really fun is reading this book over cocktails!” so they obviously felt the charm. But for me it was a no-go.
Cover design by Timothy O’Donnell, all rights to image remain with current holder. #SFWApro