It’s safe to say that Apricot Brandy by Lynn Cesar is one of the more unusual urban fantasy novels I’ve ever read, and I’m a little sorry I missed it when it first came out. It’s got its flaws, but I give it quite a bit of credit for what it tried to do. Being an unusual urban fantasy novel these days is very hard to pull off.
First of all, we’ve got the title, which is pretty much the thing that drew me to the novel. The drink for which the title’s named has good plot relevance, and it stands out very nicely against the glut of urban fantasy titles that involve “night” or “blood” or “darkness” or whatever. And thank you, Cover Art, for actually showing us a heroine’s face rather than making her a headless torso! Both of these got my interested enough to look at the actual blurb about a small town being overrun by a rising Mayan god.
Huge, huge points as well for the heroine being a lesbian. Gay men are getting more inroads in fantasy novels to be sure, but lesbian heroines are still pretty thin on the ground and it’s nice to see one have the lead role in an urban fantasy for once. On the other hand, I was really disappointed that her beloved–and I’ll say this only because this happens fairly early on in the story–is killed off, after her one on camera scene shows her acting pretty heavily out of character due to supernatural influence. I was similarly disappointed that the only other person in the cast who has sexual interest in their own gender is one of the bad guys, because this could leave a less discerning reader with the impression that queer people are screwed up.
And, was it really necessary to make the lesbian heroine a victim of sexual child abuse? You could make an argument that it’s plot-relevant, but I wouldn’t necessarily buy it; there’s a lot in the plot about how Karen’s beloved father turns into a monster and how this eventually makes Karen an alcholic in her adulthood. But I’m thinking you could have pulled this off without involving rape.
Similarly, I was disappointed at how the heroine’s interactions with the main male character came perilously close to being romantic. They didn’t actually cross that line; at no point does our heroine show any actual sexual interest to the guy. But he’s definitely got sexual interest in her, and there are moments between them that are definitely intimate even if they’re not romantic. The circumstances that force this closeness on them are pretty brutal, and it’s reasonable for them to form a bond. Yet, again, I could see a less discerning reader leaping to the conclusion that our heroine is romantically interested in the guy.
This sort of unfocused treatment of the main characters has similar echoes out in the plot at large. There’s a lot of POV jumping, and in fact, the heroine actually vanishes out of the action for a big section of the last third of the novel. I must give Cesar credit for her heroine not actually being the main driving force behind fighting the Big Bad of the story, but on the other hand, it was quite disconcerting to have her vanish entirely for a big swath of the narrative. Likewise, Cesar’s prose has moments where it’s surprisingly lyrical and others where it swings right into purple floridity.
All in all though a decent read, even if it never did quite come together fully for me, and even despite its disappointments. There are bits in particular where Cesar describes the townsfolk being subsumed by the plant god that are genuinely creepy and worth reading. Three stars.