The Alchemist of Lost Souls
Sometimes it’s the big picture that draws a person into a story. Combining strong fantasy elements with interesting worldbuilding and character work, The Alchemist of Lost Souls is less interesting for its telegraphed mystery than it is for the richness of its universe, but does not stand well on its own, nor does it contain an especially mysterious mystery.
Amateur detective and former alchemist Bianca Goddard makes money selling medicinals and physickes, herbal mixtures, syrups and tinctures to help with illnesses. Happily married to her husband John Grunt, only the war with the French threatens to part them. Bianca is pregnant with their first child, and he so worries she’ll miscarry that he considers shooting himself in the foot with an arrow to get out of participating in the View of Arms. He does worse – accidentally shooting the captain’s favorite horse in the flank and causing the captain to fall from his mount. In spite of the black mark this earns him, he is nonetheless conscripted into Henry’s army, leaving Bianca alone to weather her pregnancy.
Though Bianca remains determined to put a distance between herself and her father Albern, (who was once Henry VIII’s favorite alchemist but is now out of favor and searching for a way back into the king’s good graces), Albern insists that Bianca owes him filial loyalty in spite of the ways he’s used and manipulated her in the past. So when he shows up on Bianca’s doorstep one afternoon, claiming he’s discovered a new amalgam of earth and fire, she’s liable to turn him out. But then he reveals it’s a substance of unknown and volatile potential, which he has called lapis mortem – and which he has also managed to lose. Albern believes that the substance could be used to create a smokescreen to help Henry in battle against France and will thus make him (Albern) a valuable member of the court once again and lead to a royal pardon. He suspects Bianca’s mother – a white witch who hates all things alchemy-related – but Malva professes her innocence, all the while complaining about Bianca’s refusal to take her superstitious instructions about her pregnancy seriously.
Malva is, indeed, not the culprit, although Leadith, one of her rivals, has somehow got her hands on the substance – but after showing if off, is found in an alley with her throat slit from ear to ear and the air around her billowing with green smoke. Bianca is soon on the case, nominally pretending to help Constable Patch but in fact doing most of the detecting all by herself. Who killed Leadith? Is Bianca’s family secretly involved, or will a mysterious, evil man prove to be the key? And what does the mysterious Rat Man?
The Alchemist of Lost Souls does fascinating work in achieving a balance between its Tudor setting and its quite fantastical fantasy elements. Most of this is because Bianca is such an interesting heroine, and the world she inhabits – filled with genuine magic combined with skepticism – is always evolving in a new direction, with fresh things to entertain the reader.
The characters are truly complex, and there are no true ‘white hats’ in the novel. Albern’s relationship with Bianca is sharply critical, but filled with equable banter and hidden affection, which is also the case with Bianca’s relationship with her mother, though her parents despise one another her father physically abused her mother. In comparison, there’s tenderness in Bianca’s marriage to John that proves to be very enjoyable. Her friendships are also delightful – I loved the one she maintains with Meddybamps, an impish street vendor who has a sense of humor and a mischievous streak, and who turns out to have a surprising connection to Bianca’s mother Malva.
The book has two main problems. The first is that the mystery, while it manages to pull out a credible twist at the end, isn’t terribly mysterious. Lots of red herrings pop up, the ultimate solution works, but the meandering middle slows down the overall pace of the novel.
The other is that the book doesn’t truly work outside the bounds of its series. Plot points pay off and characters develop, in ways that will not make much sense unless you’ve read previous books in the series.
But where it counts – in creating a universe that fills the reader with a creeping sense of wonder and dread as we root for characters we care about – The Alchemist of Lost Souls works and thus earns a recommendation.