Series: Accidental Alchemist #1
Published by Llewellyn Publications on January 1st 2015
Genres: Cozy Mystery, Paranormal mystery
Source: the publisher through NetGalley
Also in this series: The Masquerading Magician
Also by this author: The Masquerading Magician
Unpacking her belongings in her new hometown of Portland, Oregon, herbalist and reformed alchemist Zoe Faust can’t help but notice she’s picked up a stowaway. Dorian Robert-Houdin is a living, breathing three-and-half-foot gargoyle—not to mention a master of French cuisine—and he needs Zoe’s expertise to decipher a centuries-old text. Zoe, who’s trying to put her old life behind her, isn’t so sure she wants to reopen her alchemical past . . . until the dead man on her porch leaves her no choice.
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.
The Accidental Alchemist was a bit of a mixed bag for me. On the whole, I enjoyed it, and parts of it were quite a lot of fun. The alchemical details were fascinating, for instance, but I found the descriptions of vegan cooking techniques and recipes a little overemphasized. It’s something both the main character and the author feel strongly about (for health reasons rather than ethical concerns), but it interrupts the flow of the story on occasion.
Zoe, the main character, is a bit puzzling. She’s 300 years old, with (as you might guess) some painful memories in her past that she eventually shares with us. Yet she often doesn’t react to things like someone who has lived that long. She felt like someone in her early 30s, not someone in her 300s. I appreciate that she cares about people, particularly Dorian the gargoyle and Brixton, a teenager she is forced to take under her wing, but after centuries of not getting close to people, I would have expected a bit more awkwardness in dealing with them. Similarly, I know how quickly you can get out of touch with slang and pop culture just in a generation, yet she seems reasonably well up on it. Don’t get me wrong – I like Zoe. She cares about justice, she’s loyal to those she befriends, and she’s as honest and ethical as she can be given her secrets and theirs (though not entirely law-abiding.)
She’s also drawn to the lead detective in the murder case, and I can’t fault her there. Max Liu is an interesting person, and it’s clear that even by the end of the book, we don’t know all there is to know about him. He, in turn, is clearly drawn to Zoe, and gives her more information than he probably should – but not a lot more. Like Zoe, he’s committed to justice, and he has a soft spot for Brixton, a teenager on the verge of trouble. He’s also got good cop instincts, which means Zoe has to be extra-careful. I’m pretty sure we’ll see this relationship develop further in the next book.
My favorite character, though, is Dorian the gargoyle. I didn’t expect to feel that way, particularly in the beginning when he is almost irritatingly (and stereotypically) French. But his backstory is really rather sad, and the danger facing him rather horrifying, so soon I began to sympathize; before long, he had wormed his way into my affections. He’s sometimes funny and a bit impetuous, definitely a good foil for the more cautious Zoe. And he loves to read murder mysteries. The mental picture of a living stone gargoyle eagerly turning the pages of an Agatha Christie novel is delightful.
The relationship between Dorian, Zoe, and the teenage Brixton is one of the highlights of the book. The murder mystery itself spools out fairly slowly, which makes it lose some of its punch. It also gets somewhat convoluted, and I will admit that I did not spot the murderer at all. Pandian employs some rather clever misdirection and obfuscation, along with the usual assortment of potential suspects with means and/or motive (i.e., red herrings.) And she plays fair with the reader; when you know the solution, you can see that the clues were there in the text.
Another aspect I found fun is the inadvertent connections with Deborah Harkness’s All Souls trilogy – not intentional or overt, but inescapable because the books share a fascination with alchemy and its history. You’ll find mentions of Nicholas Flamel, John Dee, Edmund Kelly, the city of Prague (a hotbed for alchemical research in its day), and discussions on alchemical processes and symbols. Harkness’s knowledge of the subject appears more extensive, but Pandian does a good job of integrating the material into her book. There’s even another connection, again probably not intentional (unless it’s a bit of an in-joke) in that Zoe was born near Salem – like Diana Bishop, but much earlier. Connections is probably a misnomer; these are really just coincidences, born of each author’s use of the same historical facts. But it was fun to spot them nonetheless.
It was hard for me to assign a rating to The Accidental Alchemist; I kept vacillating between 3.5 stars and 4 stars – 4 for the bits that were really quite good, and 3.5 for the slow pace (for a mystery – it would be fine in a novel) and the inconsistencies in Zoe’s character. In the end, I went with 3.5, but I definitely liked the book enough to be on the lookout for book two, whenever it comes out.
Challenges: COYER eligiblity: free (ARC); Cruisin’ Thru the Cozies; PopSugar: book with a nonhuman character (Dorian); Witches & Witchcraft: the magical side of alchemy.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- 2015 Witches & Witchcraft Reading Challenge
- COYER Winter 2014-2015
- Cruisin' Thru the Cozies 2015
- PopSugar 2015 Reading challenge