If anyone ever tells you there’s nothing new in paranormal romance and the genre’s on its way out, hand them a copy of Jenn Bennett’s Bitter Spirits. I finished this start to a new series last week, and I’m already itching for the next installment.
Bitter Spirits is set in Prohibition-era San Francisco, and it’s no small feat to get such a setting right. I’ve lived in San Francisco for almost a decade now, and if you kidnapped me and dropped me on one of its street corners after another decade away, I’m sure I’d know it instantly. This is a city with a style all its own, and it’s not always easy to capture that on the page. San Francisco’s geography and history of periodic growth and destruction mean that each neighborhood has a characteristic architecture and personality–heck, even the climate changes every dozen blocks. It’s easy to miss those subtleties if you’ve only visited the tourist attractions, but Bitter Spirits gets every location, from the narrow urban canyons of Chinatown to the mansions of Pacific Heights, unerringly right. It was a joy to see my adopted home city through the lens of the book, and an even bigger thrill to see it layered with the delicious atmosphere of the 1920s.
That Prohibition-era flavor gave an extra dimension to the paranormal world of the book as well. The underground and not-so-underground collection of speakeasies and glitzy 1920s hotels blends beautifully with Bitter Spirits’s world of spirits and black magic. I loved the way Bennet used the historical aspects of Spiritualism–seances, mediums, ghosts–to inform her own invented paranormal universe.
While I loved rolling around in the world of the book, what really kept me reading was the characters. I’ve read Jenn’s Arcadia Bell series, so I knew she’d deliver some strong female characters. Aida is self-assured and resourceful, and the side characters never slip into cliche. The hero, Winter, is the best alpha-beta blend I’ve seen in a while. Strong and ruthless when he needs to be, but kind, thoughtful and vulnerable, too. A bootlegger with a heart of gold. (It didn’t hurt that he’s sexy as hell.) Best of all, it’s the characters that power the plot. Their best characteristics–Aida’s independence and Winter’s honorable protectiveness–are also the qualities that drive them apart, and it’s the the reconciliation of those sometimes competing drives that brings them to their happily ever after.
Bitter Spirits ticked all of my boxes: a richly drawn setting, a deeply imagined paranormal world, and a character-driven plot. Oh, and did I mention the sexy as hell part?
Read anything that ticked all your boxes lately?