Bitter Spirits is a fun, suspenseful paranormal romance set in San Francisco in 1927. I loved the setting, the restrained but effective paranormal touches, and the heroine who is smart, talented, and independent.
The plot is more or less this: Aida Palmer is a medium – a real one, not a fake. She accepts short-term engagements across the country at speakeasies where she helps people communicate with the dead. Winter Magnusson is a big time bootlegger. Let’s just pause for a moment to contemplate that name: Winter Magnusson.
OK, we contemplated it, and we’re moving on. Winter is cursed, and he needs help from Aida to break the curse. Of course they fall madly in lust, and as they get to know each other they respect one another. Best of all, better even than the frequent and torrid sex they enjoy, is the fact that these two wounded individuals make one another laugh. Winter and Aida are both people who have lost almost everyone close to them. Aida has had to deal with abandonment, while Winter is burdered with guilt. Ultimately they have to decide how much they owe to the past and whether or not they can enjoy more than a no-strings liasion. Meanwhile, there’s bootlegging and tongs and ghosts and abandoned ships and all kinds of delightful plot contrivances that keep all this angst from getting too heavy. Even though the characters are weighed down by grief, they have a lot of fun together, and I had fun too.
Since I live near San Francisco, I was especially interested in the historical detail about the city during the Roaring Twenties. One advantage this setting has is that it allows for a lot of diversity in the cast of characters. Aida is used to working and living alongside people who are black, white, and Chinese, and there’s no snobbery or racism among the main characters. My one regret is that the people of color don’t play as large a role as I initially thought they would. There’s a villain who could be perceived as offensive to people of Chinese descent (he’s quite stereotypical), but his presence is somewhat mitagated by the fact that he is not the only major Chinese character in the story, and in fact Aida is quite sympathetic to his cause though not his methods. If Bo, a supporting character who is both a friend and employee of Winter’s, gets his own book, soon, I’ll be over the moon with joy.
I also enjoyed the fact that Aida develops good friendships with a number of different women, including one of Winter’s ex-girlfriends. There’s temporary jealousy, but no cat-fighting. The Bechdel test is passed, hurrah!
This book has a certain gleeful amorality about it. Reading this book with its bootlegger hero was quite a bit like reading about pirates. I have a hard time romanticizing pirates too, to be honest, but tons of people think pirates are a hoot and a half and I suppose enough time has passed since Prohibition that we can romanticize bootleggers too. At one point, Aida compares Winter, who supplies the rich with alcohol, to Robin Hood, and I spit a mouthful of tea all over the place. Really, Aida? Robin Hood? I don’t think so.
Aida and Winter are both compelling characters. Aida is smart, independent, and stubborn. I adored her. When she makes mistakes, they are totally in keeping with her character, and when she does things right, those things are also in keeping with her character – it’s not like she suddenly invents a new skill set for herself when the plot demands it. She was also fun because so many paranormal heroines are fighters in the physical sense, and she isn’t. That’s not to say that she can’t stand up for herself. Do not attempt to grab this woman if she’s anywhere near a bunch of lit incense sticks. Ow. But she’s more likely, and more practiced, at using her wits and her skills as a medium to get by.
Winter is a character I normally am not drawn to. He’s not my favorite hero. I prefer my heroes to be not so alpha male, and also not active, violent criminals. Winter isn’t just a bootlegger – he’s a powerful bootlegger. A mob boss, basically. But I have to admit that he’s well-written. He’s complex and interesting and charismatic. And he sure writes a great morning after note – protective but not smothering, considerate (the reference to her show) and sexy (the taxi):
Dear Cheetah, [Winter calls Aida “Cheetah” because she is covered with freckles]
I have received word from the boss of the two gentlemen who accosted us today in the apothecary shop. He would like to apologize to us in person, and has requested we join him for luncheon tomorrow. In spite of his employees’ bad behavior, I feel confident that we will be treated with respect, and would not put you in further danger if I believed there was a chance this wasn’t safe. Please trust me. Bo will drive us. I’ll pick you up at noon.
P.S.: I hope your show went well this afternoon.
P.S. #2: I’m not sorry about what we did in the taxi, in case that wasn’t clear.
If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be “Refreshing”. As much as I adore Regency and Victorian romances, it was refreshing to read about a very different era. And, as much as I love urban paranormal heroines who are experts at hand to hand combat and weapons use, it was refreshing to read about a heroine who lives entirely by her wits. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series (it's a series of loosely connected stand-alones), Grim Shadows. The hero and heroine are both archeologists. Based on the preview chapter, it’s just my kind of thing. They had me at:
“You didn’t come all this way to meet me, did you?”
She shook her head. “I was giving a seminar on Middle Kingdom animal mummification at the University of Utah”.
You guys know I LOVE it when heroines start talking about seminars on animal mummification. Stay tuned!