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Book Review: Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge

March 26, 2016

Lnightshade lounge coverast Call at the Nightshade Lounge
Paul Krueger
Quirk Books
June 2016
Review copy via Edelweiss

The premise is this: recent MBA grad Bailey Chen has moved back home to Chicago, with no job prospects. She’s got a complicated history with her best friend Zane, maybe romance, maybe a crush, definite awkward moments. But, when Zane offers her a chance to work in his uncle’s bar, she knows she needs the job and the money.

Cue the monsters prowling the streets of Bailey’s hometown. Turns out that the Nightshade Lounge is not merely a bar. None of the bars in the area are. Zane introduces Bailey to the other bartenders, who mix magical cocktails with different properties to give them the attributes needed to fight back against the gruesome tremens monsters. (Yes, tremens as in delirium tremens.) After her first monster fight encounter, Bailey wants in. She wants to learn the lore of mixing magical cocktails. Not just any screwdriver will give its drinker super strength, nor any old fashioned confer telepathic ability. (Despite what one might think after having had a few.) According to the lore, special liquor must be used, and as Bailey discovers during her bartender-monster-fighter training, not every cocktail mixed, even with the special liquor, confers the magic glow of enhanced abilities.

In general, I’m very happy with most of the above elements: I’m a fan of urban fantasy narrated by a smart, wisecracking woman (see also: the InCryptid series by Seanan Maguire). I’m all for an action-packed tale of a young woman discovering the supernatural and then learning how to kick its butt (see also: Buffy.) As my multiple, battered copies of The Callahan Chronicals by Spider Robinson can show, I’m especially ready to read urban fantasy set in a bar, with an interesting ensemble cast. I even think Nightshade is an excellent name for a supernatural bar.

So, I was primed to love this book.

And… I liked a lot of things about it: Bailey’s voice as a narrator was fun. (Thanks to her living at home and questioning what comes next, I think I even understand what the New Adult genre of fiction means.) I liked both of her mentors. I was very happy with the genial snark from Bucket, a smartass fellow bartender. Some of the plot twists as to who was good and who wasn’t genuinely surprised me. And the history nerd in me very much enjoyed the cocktail lore that bracketed each chapter, and was only slightly altered to include the world’s magic system.

I think that was my main stumbling point: the magic system of cocktail-fueled superpowers. I had trouble deciding whether it was meant to be funny or earnest. The tone of the writing seemed to have the same trouble. It felt like it was veering (drunkenly?) between both. Bailey as new initiate worked somewhat as a voice of skepticism about magic cocktails and monsters. Up to a point. But I was still giggling, beyond the point where she bought in and settled down to the quest and worldview. So that felt odd.

The feel of the cocktails-as-superpowers reminded me of playing Dungeons and Dragons in college. After midnight. A beer or two in. With a GM who might be getting a touch punchy and ridiculous deploying the goofier game mechanics.

But the tone of the writing kept skewing away from embracing the silliness. Insisting, in action-packed fight scenes and escalating bad guy machinations, that it was an earnest, slightly dark urban fantasy. Yes indeed. No silliness here.

Even though I kept giggling.

I figured out what else was getting to me. Where I had seen magical battle cocktails before?

 

Kingdom of Loathing

 

Kingdom of Loathing is a marvelous little web-based game that knows exactly how ridiculous it is, full of jokes about gaming and pop culture, lots of gleefully bad puns.

Because I had seen everything from screwdrivers to beer to a shot of tomato schnapps Capture
(yes, Kingdom of Loathing is that ridiculous) as part of the goofy game-play of Kingdom of Loathing, embraced in all its giggle-inducing potential. Once I thought of Kingdom of Loathing, I couldn’t read the action scenes in the straightforward action mood they were written to create.

There was a lot to enjoy about this book, in terms of characters, a fast, action-packed read, a plot that kept me guessing.

It’s just, the way the mood kept skewing between dark and giggle-inducing, I didn’t love this as much as I wanted to.

Even though it was basically easy to swallow, some of the unevenness in mood made the mix feel slightly off for me. I honestly can’t tell whether that’s a criticism of the book, or just the fact that I had unfortunately come to it the personal baggage of some pretty silly cross-references.

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