Holy WOW. I felt like I had been hit by the awesome reading truck after finishing Jenn Bennett‘s new addition to historical/paranormal romance. Bitter Spirits is probably one of the best historical romances I’ve read in the last couple of years and it has taken me a while to determine if this is due to her writing chops (which are prodigious), the unbelievable detail of a period often neglected in historicals, or because of her kick butt characterization.
The answer is d) all of the above.
It’s prohibition in San Francisco and Aida Palmer has enjoyed her time at the upscale Gris-Gris speakeasy where her medium act is a huge hit. This is assuredly because it’s totally real – Aida can summon, and dispel, the dead.
Since her employer is a voodoo practioner, Aida is surprised when she is summoned to help an important person get rid of a haunting, and even more shocked to discover that the person in question is the handsome, premier bootlegger of San Francisco, Winter Magnusson. This huge man oozing masculinity has been hexed and he needs help ASAP before he succumbs to both the poison and the ghost he can’t shake. Aida helps with the ghost and her boss with the poisoning, but not before it comes clear that Winter has made an enemy of someone in Chinatown.
Winter is utterly fascinated with the diminutive, freckled medium with the gorgeous figure and rich dark hair. She’s also the real deal, and he is intrigued that she has no reaction to the scar he retains from the car accident that killed his wife and parents. She’s also refreshingly honest, so when the opportunity presents itself to hire her to help him with a haunting in his mansion as well as his ongoing mystery enemy he does it. Proximity only makes their intense attraction more formidable, but obstacles – both paranormal and all too in the flesh – exist to keep these two apart despite the fact they are falling fast and hard for each other.
Before I get into the time period, let’s take a moment to discuss how utterly blown away I was by Bennett’s writing. A lot of historical romance writers are like Laurence Olivier, the famous film and stage actor who was known for his brilliance but who always declared he wanted the audience to see the effort it took to bring his characters to life. I’ve read excellent authors who seem to want you to appreciate all the work they put into their accurate underclothes research or the mind-numbing social constructs (which may or may not be necessary to understand their plot).
With Bennett, her plot moves effortlessly along, with an emotional intensity that makes me desperate to turn the page. The tone is alternately dark and sinister but with increasing flashes of hope for our couple, even as their time together draws to a close and things get more desperate. Bennett is, hands down, one of the best writers of sexual tension – a tension born of a realistic sexual attraction between two people who are falling in lust and in love at a real pace, albeit perhaps one propelled a little faster by the urgent circumstances of attempting to discover Winter’s enemy. The scene in the taxi? Holy cow!!
Jenn Bennett brings both Prohibition San Francisco and this era to life (take a look at her great RT Times article on the history of the speakeasy during this time), so much so that it’s jarring to return to modern life. Her attention to the very last detail – the clothing, the birth control, the tenuous racial coexistence between groups – demonstrates a familiarity that never, ever ventures into the world of the info dump. Bennett effortlessly transmits the tone, feeling and data we need to understand a world that is both familiar and yet totally foreign to us, and kudos to her for managing to do what so few historical writers can manage, even when we are loving their characters.
And you WILL love her characters, and there are so many to love!! Not only do we have Winter who is the best hunk of tortured hero I’ve seen in a while, but Aida is a modern spitfire who has carved a place in the world for herself that almost defies explanation. The secondary characters – Winter’s biracial sidekick who clearly is a possible love interest for Winter’s younger, impetuous sister, the family servants in the mansion, Aida’s landlady in Chinatown – are so well-drawn that you find yourself spinning possible backstories about them in your head. I’m sure I’ll see their reappearance in the next book of the series, starring Winter’s world-traveling archeologist brother, Lowe, and the curator who gets herself involved with an Egyptian artifact harboring some powerful effects. Their book, Grim Shadows, is due out on June 3rd, so happy birthday to me!
I had literally reached a point where I couldn’t bear one more “meh” Regency romance, but really wanted a historical that would satisfy me. What I got in Jenn Bennett’s Bitter Spirits was a book that haunted me for weeks afterward, reaffirming my belief in this subgenre of romance and rejoicing in the fact that such a talented author exists on this planet. For anyone who loves historical romance and this time period, run out this second and go buy this book.