Monday, September 9, 2013
Book Review: Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz
Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz
Book 1 in The Chonicles of Light and Shadow
LEAVE IT TO CHANCE.
Eleanor “Elle” Chance, that is—a high-flying dirigible pilot with a taste for adventure and the heroine of this edgy new series that transforms elements of urban fantasy, steampunk, and paranormal romance into pure storytelling gold.
It is 1903, and the world is divided between light and shadow. On the side of light is a wondrous science that has transformed everyday life by harnessing magical energies to ingenious new technologies. But each advance of science has come at the expense of shadow—the traditional realm of the supernatural.
Now two ancient powers are preparing to strike back. Blood-sucking immortal Nightwalkers and their spellcasting Alchemist allies have a plan to cover the whole world in shadow. All they require is the sacrifice of a certain young woman whose past conceals a dangerous secret.
But when they come after Elle, they get more than they bargained for. This enterprising young woman, the daughter of a scientific genius, has reserves of bravery and determination that even she scarcely suspects. Now she is about to meet her match in more ways than one: a handsome yet infuriating Warlock named Hugh Marsh, whose agenda is as suspect as his charms are annoyingly irresistible.
Let it be said that Steampunk and I have a difficult relationship. I really want to love it, I really do. I think it wants to please me and offer me all sorts of things that other genres just don't have: steamships and dirigibles and corsets and fancy gadgets and women actually doing things regularly. But then I realize that, no matter how much steampunk tries to do for me, it's *only* steamships and dirigibles and corsets and gadgets. It's not that there's anything wrong with them, per se, but it becomes hollow. As Ferretbrain once said, "It's an aesthetic looking for a purpose."
So I was pleased to find someone who is trying to pull steampunk into a realm where more fantasy readers are somewhat more comfortable, using magic as well as high-tech steam gadgets to forward a plot and set up a story. There are Warlocks who wield powerful magic and there are Alchemists who forged a dark alliance with Nightwalkers (read: vampires) to gain earthly power.
As almost every steampunk novel does, this one starts with a plucky-and-tough-yet-vulnerable young woman trying to make her way in the world as an airship pilot. Of course she is. But before she can say "goggles," she's pulled into an adventure that's way beyond her. Enter Hugh March, a mysterious man with a mysterious past who does mysterious things for mysterious reason. MYSTERY, dammit!
And of course they are thrown together - two personalities that are not really alike but they start to rub along nicely after a while - and their adventures across Europe and Turkey show them each other's strengths. Also, love. And smoochin'.
The book's real strongsuit lies in the adventure part. When the two main characters are off doing things and shooting down air pirates and exploring Constantinople and doing stuff in Venice, the book is solid.
It's when they start solely interacting with each other that the book starts to be bang-your-head-against-a-wall frustrating. The characters aren't bad, mind you, but Elle has got to be the single most dense and self-deluding Steampunkette ever.
I feel like there was a scene that went something like this:
Hugh: So, you have some special vision powers and the Warlocks want you to use it for them because it will be good for the world.
Elle: Nuh-uh. I don't.
Hugh: Um, you totally do. And if you don't help us, the world will end. Because, you know, Alchemists and stuff.
Elle: I don't have powers, Hugh! If you weren't so dreamy - and if I would just stop having these pesky visions - I could slap you. I'm leaving now.
*Leaves room, has powerful vision.*
Elle: (Upon waking, to self) That Hugh. Such a jerk, saying I have "powers." Doesn't know what he's talking about.
This is me after that scene:
So yeah. About 25% of the book could have been cut out if that conversation had gone something like:
Hugh: You have powers.
Elle: Huh. That explains a lot. What do we do about it?
The worldbuilding is really clever and the story itself is a great adventure. I really enjoyed the combination of fantasy (fairies and vampires) mixed with stereotypical steampunk (advanced-yet-old tech, airships), but I'm not 100% sold on the main character. I wouldn't object to reading the sequel, however, to see where the story goes.
3 out of 5 stars!