If somebody told me a couple years back that it’s possible that a magic system with a basis in alcohol can exist, I would have nodded, smiled, and then dismissed the prospect into the same closet I keep my imaginary friends. Then I found Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge on NetGalley, and after reading the teaser, I thought: “Huh. You know what, it could work!”
LAST CALL AT THE NIGHTSHADE LOUNGE
by Paul Krueger
Quirk Books, June 2016
Rated: / 5 cookies
provided by NetGalley
College grad Bailey Chen has a few demons: no job, no parental support, and a rocky relationship with Zane, the only friend who’s around when she moves back home. But when Zane introduces Bailey to his cadre of monster-fighting bartenders, her demons get a lot more literal. Like, soul-sucking hell-beast literal. Soon, it’s up to Bailey and the ragtag band of magical mixologists to take on whatever—or whoever—is behind the mysterious rash of gruesome deaths in Chicago, and complete the lost recipes of an ancient tome of cocktail lore.
To be honest, one of the first things that grabbed my attention regarding this book was its unfinalized cover. It was pretty much an overlook of a bar in dark orange lighting. I can see why it was ultimately changed, because had I not read the book jacket summary, I wouldn’t have pegged the book for an urban fantasy. That bit is kind of important to grasp, because Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge is an urban fantasy.
And in all fairness, I like the change from dark orange to a more ominous, supernatural-y green. I like that there’s an Asian character in the cover (because the main character is Chinese, and heaven forbid they whitewash the cover), and I like that there’s the mysterious glow of the cocktail in her hand. It definitely fits the contents of the book better.
Cover aside, I was a bit tentative over starting this book because it was marketed as new adult. So far, my encounters with new adult covers and premises kind of just make me cringe and walk the other way. That said, it was probably a good idea that I mostly avoided new adult stuff, because while I did adore my college years and while I have gone through a similar rocky “I don’t know what I want to do with my life” patch post-college, I’m not very interested in reliving them vicariously through story protagonists (a few exceptions notwithstanding–like Fangirl).
Enter Bailey. A relatively smart cookie, she’s a fictional (though the real life truth isn’t far off) testament that an Ivy League education doesn’t necessarily bring you a barrel of success on the get-go. Sure, the resources are easier to tap into, and Bailey Chen is nothing if not a hard-working girl from a hardworking Chinese family. She pretty much is set to succeed. Except she doesn’t. Not at first.
God, no. This was how it ended, not with a bang but with a minimum-wage job and a heap of student debt. Bailey cringed, and with all her dizzied, nauseated might, she mustered up one stupid, single, and probably final thought:
Fuck. That. Shit.
And she kicked. Hard.
That said, she’s got pluck. For a tiny Asian girl, that says everything, and I warmed to Bailey like the magical cocktails in her system (haha, yeah, I went there). Sure she had her fair share of problems and drama, and often I sighed at the stupid things she said out of anger, but on some level, she does find herself to be justified in a few of them.
But let’s get away from the characters for a moment to look at the magic system: mixology.
“You’re sober, which is synonymous with useless, so if you want to help, come back with something in your system. I’ll cover you.”
This book’s major appeal to me was definitely in the magic system of cocktail-mixing. As a cocktail enthusiast (which should not be equalized to “perpetual drunk” because…well, just because!), I could appreciate the intricate skill it takes to make a perfectly mixed drink. When done right and in the proper ratio, it does have a magical “feel” to it. So when Krueger tried to tie mixology to the pseudo-science that is alchemy, I was completely sold on the matter, albeit my initial misgivings of several years back.
“So what does a mai tai do?” she asked to fill the silence. From skimming the The Devil’s Water Dictionary, she knew that rum drinks produced elemental effects, but she couldn’t remember the specifics for mai tais.
He grinned. “Let’s hope I won’t have to show off. But if I do, well, you’re in for fireworks.”
“So it’s fire?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But it’s fire.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t need to. It’s fine.”
He sighed. “You done?”
She nodded. But to herself, she repeated: fire.
On top of the story, almost each chapter was followed by a particular cocktail recipe, as illustrated in the fictional The Devil’s Water Dictionary. While I did find the excerpts distracting by the end of the book, I actually loved reading them. Obviously, the historical writeups are fictional at length, but it was still interesting to read through each ingredient–and it just made making a corresponding cocktail much easier to do! (Case in point, my “Food and Fandom” accompaniment below.)
The final reason for the mai tai’s prevalence was eloquently summed up at the 1970 National Symposium of the Cupbearers Court by the Chicago bartender Robert Whelan: “Fire is cool.”
Can I just get a copy of The Devil’s Water Dictionary, please? That would be fabulous.
But anyway, let’s get back to the characters and their dialogue. Sometimes the dialogue made me cringe, to be honest. Bailey’s interactions with Jess and the startup company Jess represented drove me up the wall, mostly because I felt my IQ go down a bit with their exchange in conversation. You’d think this wouldn’t be the case, but it was, and I got to respecting the presence of the “Alechemists” (har har, I thought this was funny) much more in that regard. I mean, come on, Bucket was a hoot-and-a-half, but so was Zane in some degree. Also, I pretty much imagine this happening whenever there’s a bartending scene at the Nightshade Lounge:
But with women bartenders as well. Because, you know, feminism and all.
“But,” Zane said with gravitas, “there’s one big missing piece that no one’s been able to crack in more than three hundred years: the secret of the Long Island Iced Tea.”
Bailey laughed into her coffee.
Even though I still couldn’t take the whole Long Island Iced Tea thing seriously. I’m in Bailey’s court here as well. I pretty much burst into laughter when Zane went into his Long Island Iced Tea spiel.
But then again, I kind of lost it with Zane because he’s just such a big NERD.
Zane had swapped his usual suit for a black tuxedo. He’d paired it with a long red-lined cape, a black top hat, and a white domino mask. He twirled a rose in his fingers like a wand.
“I’m not a magician,” Zane said with a flare of annoyance. “I’m Tuxedo–never mind. What’re you doing here?”
Case in point. I just cannot with dudes dressing up as Tuxedo Mask. CANNOT.
So did I enjoy the book? You bet I did. It was fun, it was an easy read, and while there was a degree of danger and suspense and drama in the book, it was still a lighthearted romp into the bartending life of Chicago’s best demon-slayers.
I’d totally read a sequel if there is ever going to be one. Just saying.
4 out of 5 cookies! Now excuse me. I’ve got a cocktail to make.
And though the abilities granted by the proper preparation of other libations may require years of steady practice to master, drinkers of the screwdriver have found that hitting things very hard in the face until they die is rather straightforward.
The Alechemists used this drink quite a few times in the book, and it’s pretty much the first one Bailey makes that becomes the turning point between her being a barback and an official bartender, a member of the Cupbearers Court. The screwdriver is also easy to make in a home kitchen. Which is why I pretty much did one. I’m a vodka girl, I like orange and citrusy cocktails, and I had the ingredients right there! (Ironically, I didn’t have orange juice at the time, so I actually had to run to the store to get some. But nevermind that tiny detail! I eventually did get orange juice!)
I can see why this is the go-to cocktail, because it packs a punch with the barest of ingredients. It’s literally just a tall glass filled with ice, one-third vodka, and orange juice. That’s pretty much it. And the magical effects? Super strength!