The Absinthe Earl
Set in an alternate Victorian-ish (or possibly Regency-ish) era, Sharon Lynn Fisher’s The Absinthe Earl starts out as an okay fantasy romance, although some stiff prose and awkward worldbuilding drag the entire production down. Then the novel introduces a mentally ill character doused in ‘mad queen’ tropes, whose symptoms manifest themselves through uncontrollable and sometimes cruel magic, and my already low opinion of the story plummeted further.
The young and enterprising Miss Ada Quicksilver has been in Dublin for four days now, hunting down stories about faery sightings in the city, and the increasingly over-the-top stories have begun to leave her bemused. On holiday break from Lovelace’s Academy of Promising Young Women, normally Ada would be making an anthropological study of the fae from the safety of the school, but there’s nothing better than getting up close and personal with the subject of one’s life study. Since absinthe is known to produce visions of faeries, she hits up the bars of Dublin to examine the link between the spirit and the sightings – and meets a tall, dark handsome stranger.
He introduces himself as Edward Donoghue, but the barkeep who serves them a drink calls him “Your lordship”. She learns that Edward has just left a naval assignment, and when she asks if he’s ever seen a fairy, he freezes. For Edward Donoghue is not merely a lord, he is the Earl of Meath, and his sleepwalking and visions of otherworldly creatures bought on by headaches – which he’d been treating with absinthe – are all symptomatic of something much more complex than he originally thought .
Ada and Edward agree to travel together (platonically) to the place Edward keeps seeing in his visions – the fairy mound recently excavated from the ruins of Brú na Bóinne at Newgrange. Along the way, Edward spots his cousin Isolde – the new Queen of Ireland who is plagued by high spirits and hallucinations, who has instructed him to retrieve a precious artifact from the mound. Ada and Edward stay with Isolde while trying to puzzle out what’s happening – and an attack as they visit the mound brings them to a startling conclusion. The visions of fairies others have experienced, Edward’s visions of monsters – they’re evidence of the world beyond bleeding into their own.
They retrieve the sword of Diarmuid, called Great Fury, and Isolde tells them it will be useful in a coming battle – a battle between humanity and the fae world. Edward’s instinctive ability to wield the sword is also explicable – his fugue states are evidence that he exists partially in the fae world as Diarmuid, and partially in the human as Edward The gaps in his memory are accounted for by the fact that during those times, Diarmuid walks the earth in his body and Edward’s spirit remains in the fairy realm. He’s one of many gateways into the real world for the fae – and soon Ada and Edward will be forced to team up to stop the invasion of these creatures into the real world
The Absinthe Earl has some interesting and original concepts that – with more fluid prose and a less messy way of telling its story – might have worked. But the crass ableism, together with the confusing plot and the mediocre romance means it never really gets off the ground.
Edward is an okay character, albeit not an especially lively one; Ada is more so, and they make a decent if not particularly exciting couple. They have a few cute moments that made me smile, but they’re pretty bland. And as for Isolde, well, easy ableism isn’t a substitute for depth of characterization and she never really comes to life.
This is one hell of a plotty book, and if you don’t pay close attention to the heavy mashup of Irish history, mythology, romance and fantasy, you’ll lose your way quite quickly; and the worldbuilding is so haphazard and the way the book handles the borderline between the ‘real’ and Fae world so abrupt that you might just end up doing that anyway.
The story gets sidetracked as Ada and Edward engage in long, tiring ‘as you know, Bob’ – style prose about what they know about Irish legend and mythology, explaining things to the reader even though there’s a lengthy reference sheet at the beginning of the book. It bogs the action scenes down, and results in prose that’s disjointed and stilted. It is, in fact, sometimes exhausting as we rush between plot points.
And then there’s the uncomfortable matter of Isolde, a stereotypical ‘mad queen’ character who uses magic and illusions to express manic moods. While she’s also portrayed as a competent leader and commander of armies, as well as a sympathetic if all-seeing character, the connection between her magic and her manic moods is uncomfortable at best, and Edward frequently patronizes his cousin on-page until he realizes her visions are just another form of the reality he’s been experiencing.
The Absinthe Earl fails to work as an interesting romance, and its notions about mental illness makes it impossible to recommend.
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