The descendent of a Chinese medicine god, Elle is far more powerful than her sedate job at a charm shop in Raleigh, North Carolina, demands. But she would rather cast underpowered spells for the faerie agency that owns the shop and cautiously flirt with French half-elf Luc than live up to her full potential. Concealing the extent of her abilities means she can stay in hiding and keep her older brother, Tony, safe from those who would harm him. Luc has problems of his own, including forced service in the same agency Elle works for and two orphaned children stuck in an enchanted sleep from a mission gone wrong. When Luc, who has long suspected the depth of Elle’s power, commissions a special charm to help him ace his assignments (and get some necessary time off so he can focus on a cure for the kids), Elle at first refuses. Demonstrating magic that strong could put the fragile life she has so carefully constructed at risk. But she eventually relents, and as she and Luc work together, their spark of attraction develops into a steady flame. There’s only one problem: Luc’s latest mission is actually to find Elle’s younger brother, who is the reason she and Tony are in hiding in the first place.
At turns tender and exhilarating, Mia Tsai’s debut, Bitter Medicine, is part gentle contemporary romance, part paranormal action novel. At first, Elle and Luc’s interactions are bumbling and awkward, the perfect dynamic for two characters who are entirely focused on duty and don’t know how to put themselves first. The success of their romance hinges on some pivotal questions: Who is Luc when he isn’t at Elle’s shop? Who are either of them, truly, and who do they want to be? This ever-present tension allows Tsai to temper the gentle moments of Luc and Elle’s budding affection with the dangerous reality of their situation, which is that they are trying to live a romantic comedy in the middle of a spy novel. Luc’s secret missions, close calls between Elle and her younger brother’s associates and the web of secrets woven between Elle and Luc are thrilling. But both characters are capable of transcending the espionage genre in favor of a more hopeful narrative—as long as they are brave enough to take the plunge.
Full of heart and hope, Bitter Medicine is both a heartwarming look into the relationships that shape our lives and an all-consuming narrative about a hidden world of magic and intrigue, combining dreamy prose with sharp wit and a propulsive story. It’s perfect for those who are looking for a cozier read but still want enough action to keep things interesting.