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A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz – review
Any fantasy book that features an adventure should be fun and exciting. Some of them are, some of them just end up mired in a web of unresolved side plots and forgotten characters. Trying to find the good ones, especially in a subgenre that is rapidly gaining in popularity and still finding a solid definition of itself can be even tougher.
A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz is the first volume in The Chronicles of Light and Shadow. The world is divided into Alchemists and Warlocks. The two factions are waging a secret war in an effort to tip the balance of magic in the world. The Alchemists are aligned with Nightwalkers (this book’s term for what, so far, appears to be an attractive, wealthy race of fairly standard vampires). The Alchemists serve the Nightwalkers as caretakers and, in turn gain esoteric knowledge that enables them to construct machines that do nearly miraculous things. The Warlocks, on the other hand, operate under a secret council and study magic. They do answer to the council as a governing body. As science gains traction in the world, the Warlocks find their own power waning. Both groups are in search of an Oracle, a woman who descends from a long line of seers and who can help whichever group she chooses to join gain the upper hand in the battle.
Eleanor Chance is a dirigible pilot who is hired by her friend Patrice to discreetly transport a cargo out of Paris for him. Things go awry from the outset. She no sooner picks up the package she’s supposed to deliver than she gets waylaid by a man who throws her in a carriage and attempts to kidnap her. She manages to escape, but doesn’t manage to retain the item she’s intended to deliver.
She finds herself having to deal with Marsh, a mysterious gentleman who tends to be more brusque than anything else. He insists that Elle needs his protection from all the intrigue that’s suddenly been thrown her way. When Elle’s father, a scientist, is kidnapped, Elle and Marsh embark on a mission to rescue him.
A Conspiracy of Alchemists is fun to read. It harkens back to pulpy serialized adventures and relies on quite a bit of shorthand cribbed from those kinds of stories. The world around Elle feels a little bit sketched in. As readers, we’re expected to recognize and understand a large portion of the Victorian elements on our own. Details of plot are well-covered, details of setting just aren’t as much. The setting also relies on a reader to be familiar with some of the more common elements of steampunk, especially where modes of conveyance are concerned.
In London and Paris, the book did a better job of giving a feeling of place. As soon as the book moved to Italy and then on to Istanbul, there were vague mentions of a few spots here and there, mostly individual rooms, but no real indication of any kind of culture shock or unfamiliarity that would result from going to a place like that for the first time. When the story is from Elle’s point of view, that’s understandable. When it’s from Marsh’s, it’s almost unforgivable.
This is a book that is more action romance in a fantasy setting than anything else. The focus here is Elle. She is the most fully developed character. She’s a strong, smart woman who has dedicated her life to a profession that bucks convention and earns her more than a little flack for it. Of course, Elle is fierce and, even more naturally, Elle is quite beautiful. The chief complaint most people seem to have about her is that she doesn’t knuckle under and she has a tendency to wear trousers because they’re more practical. That said, Elle is pretty much the smartest person in this book. She makes a few rash decisions that feel truly justified given her circumstances. She doesn’t, however, make a habit of compounding the stupidity.
Marsh is a large man, and most descriptions of him seem to point to a man who’s coarsely handsome. I’ve got no problem with this, though, initially, Elle assumes his a slob who’s lost his fortunes to a drug habit and his appearance does little to nothing to help dissuade her from that notion. He’s intelligent, but he’s also a keen strategist. He doesn’t do a whole lot of sharing information. Instead, he just expects to be able to give orders here and there and have them followed.
That, naturally, causes some friction between himself and Elle. The banter between the two of them is fun to read, just like Moonlighting used to be fun to watch. In the doses we’re given in the book, it’s entertaining, though definitely not a novel approach. Hopefully, as the series progresses, it won’t start to wear too thin.
I’d recommend this book for readers who like romances, especially if you prefer them in the vein of Jewel of the Nile or Romancing the Stone. It’s really very much that kind of story. It’s light, quick reading, and I found it easy to follow. There’s little confusion in the cast of characters; each one has a distinct enough name and function to set them apart. I felt a little bit like the ending was slightly rushed and that things just had to be tied together because they had to, so there weren’t any surprises or twists there.
If you’re looking for an adventure story without having to worry to much about sorting out a lot of background information and aren’t very worried about world-building, then this one will probably be right up your alley. Just try and make sure that no mysterious, unsavory persons of questionable moral alignment follow you when you go.