Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.
My Summary: Bailey Chen has just graduated from college and is struggling to find a job despite her Ivy league degree. Her problems transform from mundane to magical when she finds out her old friend (and new crush) Zane is part of a secret society of bartenders who fight demons by night. Different cocktails give the drinker different powers, but these powers may not be enough to save Chicago from the threat that looms on the horizon.
When I found out about this book, my first reaction was “hey, that sounds cool.” It stayed in my TBR pile for a while until I finally bumped it up for the reading challenge, and I’m glad I did because it was even better than what I expected.
To start off, I think it’s worth noting that I’m someone who basically never drinks. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve voluntarily consumed alcohol, not counting a few sips of red wine with dinner during my study abroad trip in Spain. That means that this book managed to take something I had no interest in (alcohol, drinking) and make it interesting.
The concept of cocktails that double as magical potions is pretty cool. The author develops this concept well, giving it depth and background and its own structure, theory, and limitations.
Interspersed throughout the book are “excerpts” from The Devil’s Water Dictionary, which is a guide/recipe book for different mixed drinks and the powers they grant. Along with the list of ingredients and preparation instructions, there are notes about the history of each drink and its ingredients, as well as the history of the people and events related to the drink. Other people might find it distracting or a waste of space/time, but I love reading history and trivia (so many hours spent reading Wikipedia articles), so having that touch enhanced the reading experience for me.
The protagonist, Bailey Chen, is very relatable to me. I’m also fresh out of college, unemployed, and living at home feeling pressure from family to become independent. Like her, I have to correct ignorant people about my ethnicity and deal with insufferable weeaboos/Asian fetishizers.
Which brings me to my next point: this book calls out a bunch of stuff in blatant and subtle ways. Racism, sexism, classism, and ableism are highlighted in various scenes. Bailey carries implicit biases herself, but she also makes an effort to question and unlearn them. I think this process should be written about more (in a way that doesn’t reduce characters from marginalized groups to “lessons” for the privileged, of course).
Diversity is included organically in the book. We have women of color kicking ass, a trans guy as a major supporting character, interracial couples, gay characters (in fact, a gay bar is part of the setting; one of Bailey’s female acquaintances has a crush on her), and a character with a disability (Bailey’s mentor, who also happens to be gay).
One of the nice things about the way the gay and trans characters are handled is that the story isn’t about them coming out/transitioning and struggling and whatnot. At one point, Bailey’s mentor casually mentions that he has a boyfriend, and it’s not a big deal, just a fact in his life story. The trans guy, Bucket, tells Bailey he’s trans, and Bailey tells him congratulations on transitioning and then goes on to ask him about the tremens (the demons) that he mentioned (in the same breath that he said he was trans), which is the more salient issue during that scene.
Recommendation: Highly recommended to everyone.