Are you one of those people who feels awkward around bartenders? Are you embarrassed because they clearly know so much more about alcohol than you do? Or do you perhaps you get the feeling, as they serve you up the perfect gin gimlet or rye old fashioned, that this smiling purveyor of all things intoxicating has an amazing secret, and that you should be humbled to even be in their presence?
If you answered yes to these questions, I can tell you that your instincts are spot on. If you didn’t, well, you should take another look at that tip percentage, friend, because Paul Krueger is here to let you in on a little secret. Bartenders are secret super heroes, and Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge will tell you the whole story.
Technically this review doesn’t even belong on Tor.com, because this is a science fiction and fantasy website, and, as a bartender myself, I can tell you that the fantastic elements you will read about in Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge are all real. Bartenders really are magical warriors, and alcohol really does give you amazing powers.
Let’s be honest, though, everyone knows that last bit.
Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, by Paul Krueger, tells the story of Bailey Chen, a young Chinese-American woman who has recently graduated from college and is trying to figure out the next steps to a fulfilling life and a successful career. Bailey is smart and driven, but once out of school she finds herself struggling to get a job, to get out of her parents’ house, and to make sense of her new adult world.
Bailey is trying for a job at a fancy start-up, but first she lands a gig as a barback at the Nightshade Lounge, where one of the bartenders just so happens to be an old friend named Zane. He and Bailey last parted on awkward terms after a romantic encounter at a high school graduation party, and Bailey hasn’t seen him since. He has an amazingly talented and beautiful new girlfriend named Mona, though. Add that awkwardness to the fact that Bailey’s parents are pushing her to find “real” work, and it’s all a little bit stressful.
That is, until Bailey makes herself a post-shift screwdriver with some fancy vodka she finds hidden in a special cabinet behind the bar, gives herself super strength, and gets attacked by a monster. Then it all gets a lot stressful, but Bailey also discovers that she is a natural at bartending; that is, perfectly mixing special cocktails that give her magical powers and then going out into the night and using those powers to kill monsters called tremens.
Tremens. TREMENS. Get it?
Tremens are creatures that feed on the life energy of humans, especially the extra-fortified life energy of inebriated humans. They are kind of like Dementors crossed with that creature with the eyes in its hands from Pan’s Labyrinth, but they aren’t too dangerous to a properly tipsy bartender because they never hunt in packs. Until they do, and Bailey and her new friends have to find out why before Halloween night, the most dangerous and tremens-filled night of the year.
Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge is set in Chicago, and (as I am married to a former Chicagoan) I appreciated how much the Windy City is a character in the story. Krueger’s human cast is quirky and diverse, and you get quite a tapestry of interesting people surrounding Bailey. There’s a blind old man who can bartend as well as anyone, a boy named Bucket who has a green Mohawk and is very Canadian, and of course the mysterious, stand-offish Mona, who Bailey cannot quite get to know and isn’t sure she’d like to. There is also the entire cast of the Cupbearers Court, the ancient organization of Chicagoan drink-slingers, who oversee the activity of all the bars in the city.
The array of cocktails in the book also get an in-depth treatment. Each gives its own unique magical ability to the drinker, and the reader learns about them here and there through the story as Bailey does. As we are introduced to a new drink (say, an old fashioned, which gives telekinetic ability), we get the opportunity to read an insert detailing the recipe (a drink must be prepared exactly in order to activate the magic, right down to the stirring and the garnish) and history of the cocktail in question. These tend to be quite humorous and introduce us to amusing cocktail inventors of the past.
Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge is a short book, and the plot is perhaps a bit simplistic and easily predictable in places. This, combined with the fact that Krueger’s cast is so much fun, had me wishing for a little more character development and maybe a bit more complication to the mystery side of the story. The character of Zane falls particularly flat, defined more by his relationship to his uncle and his ability to introduce Bailey to the world of bartending than by any meaningful personality traits of his own; his feelings and interests service the continuation of the plot, but seem one-dimensional when Bailey’s conflicted feelings over their high school friendships and her possible romantic interest in him become more serious. Bailey’s first-person narration confides her emotions toward Zane to the reader, but we don’t really see why she is attracted to him.
However, the real-world feel of this book saves these tropes from being too terribly obvious, and Krueger keeps the story grounded in such a way that the reader easily forgets that they are reading fantasy and starts to feel as if Bailey’s adventures could easily be their own.
If only they wandered into the right bar.
I highly recommend picking up a copy of Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge. I also recommend taking it along to your favorite watering hole and reading it over cocktails. Try drinking along with Bailey and her friends (there are 13 recipe inserts in the book, so don’t do that all in one sitting!) or maybe see if your bartender can mix up the holy grail of cocktails—Zane’s dream and the one concoction no bartender has ever managed correctly—the immortality-granting Long Island Iced Tea.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll discover your own mixological abilities. Then you can quit your fancy, well-paying office job and come work with the real heroes.
The bartenders of The Nightshade Lounge.
Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge is available now from Quirk Books.
Kelsey Jefferson Barrett reads and writes during the day, and at night slings drinks and protects the innocent. They prefer their magic to come from tequila cocktails, and were once told by a customer that they make the best Long Island Ice Tea.