★ ★ 1/2
Look at that cover! Is that not striking? I tend to be a fan of block printing, so when I was perusing NetGalley, it caught my eye. I checked out the description and thought alchemy, herbs, a gargoyle and Portland sounded like an interesting combination and worth my time.
Your results may vary, based on how much time is available.
After years of wandering the country in her Airstream trailer, Zoe Faust is looking forward to rehabilitating her new home in Portland, Oregon. Her plan for anonymity take a dramatic turn when she opens her crates and discovers a gargoyle named Dorian who is seeking her help. He’s brought an alchemy text from his father, hoping Zoe can translate the formula used to bring him to life. While Zoe is trying to wrap her head around the concept of a live gargoyle, they are interrupted. Dorian grabs the interloper, who turns out to be a local teen, Brixton, dared by friends to enter the neighborhood haunted house. Before Dorian and Zoe can swear him to secrecy, Max Liu, a local detective, stops by to check on Brixton when he fails to return to his friends. After the guests leave, Dorian cooks dinner, and they head to their respective activities. When Zoe wakes, Dorian is gone, and when she returns from a morning walk, she discovers someone lying on her front porch, dead. Detective Liu interviews her and becomes somewhat suspicious. Zoe initially is concerned Dorian might have accidentally killed to protect his secret, but her theories are quickly sidelined when she discovers some of her artifacts have been stolen as well–along with Dorion’s precious alchemy book. Zoe and Dorian begin a race to find the book and decipher the text while navigating Portland and investigating their new neighbors, alternately helped or hindered by Brixton and Liu.
The Accidental Alchemist has a number of intriguing ideas that could benefit from another editorial pass or two. Unfortunately, the writing style suffers from over-explanation at the same time momentum is hamstrung by a lack of steady drive. In narrative terms, it falls solidly into the ‘tell not show’ camp, and Zoe frequently sounded as if she was lecturing the reader instead of musing to herself or thinking through a problem. While it was acceptable in the beginning as we are introduced to Zoe, Dorian, and the world Pandian is building, it quickly becomes intrusive, particularly in the repetition of particular phrases and concepts (‘I have an affinity for plants,’ ‘I’m attuned to the sun,’ ‘I haven’t practiced alchemy in years’ and ‘alchemy is about transformation.’).
Positive aspects include the nicely rounded characters of Dorian and Blue, as well as the spirit of the adolescents hanging around Zoe. However, Liu never really felt fleshed out, nor, oddly, did the murder victim. I had a good sense of setting, with the compact Airstream and the old, rickety house. The atmosphere was built well, giving a good sense of Portland’s greenery, the rain and the underground tunnels. There’s a side theme to the story about healthy cooking which is integrated well. While it is a theme I believe in, it does feel a little didactic. Recipes are included, for those who are tempted by the descriptions. For those that enjoy it, there is a very light romance in the story.
Most significantly, there are a number of logical issues that pulled me out of the story while reading. Most likely, my feeling that these were intrusive is a result of the explanations given; had some of the actions been given without reasoning, I likely would have accepted it as a character trait I would discover more about later. I’ll use the brief summary as a means of showing my issues, but unfortunately, the problems only increase as Zoe faces an actual mystery.
The Accidental Alchemist has the bones of an engaging story with a different take on a genre full of werewolves and vampires. It’s rather a pity it didn’t work out for me, because I was primed to enjoy a light urban fantasy mystery, and the cooking tie-in is a fun merge from the food-mystery genre. Still, while it is palatable enough to distract for an hour or two, it had the promise of something so much better.
(Specifics on early confusion while reading are hidden below the break)
One, although Zoe is familiar with alchemical concepts of turning lead into gold, eternal life, and a homunculus, the idea of a living gargoyle stuns her enough that she falls off the couch. And then points out that, actually, she isn’t stunned, because she’s still there talking instead of running away. Two, she’s been afraid to “settle down” due to her lack of aging, which seems less problematic in modern society than she thinks. Move every twenty years and re-invent yourself in a new location. Three, the reader is told a great deal about how she needs a ‘fixer-upper’ house, as way to conceal her alchemy (“I didn’t tell them I was someone who needed a residence where doing substantial construction wouldn’t raise eyebrows”). Except she isn’t practicing alchemy, and what she describes as her alchemy supplies can likely be explained by a profession as an herbalist. Four, she had crates shipped from France from her storage area there that include both personal alchemy supplies as well as one-of-a-kind antiques she sells online. Nothing odd there, right? So why does she say “You’ve gotta love movers… who don’t ask questions about the items they’re delivering…. the crates contained glass jars I didn’t want anyone looking at too closely.” Again, unless they contain eyeballs (which could be theoretically explained by the antique oddities business anyhow), I’m confused as to why the paranoid secrecy and why the reader is getting so many explanations of stuff that really doesn’t matter much. There’s a sort of explanation later about secrecy as a result of her early upbringing, but it’s half-hearted. As a reader, I tend to follow along where the author leads me, and if the author is devoting significant word-count to our narrator’s logic and decision-making, I get hung up in the reasoning if it doesn’t seem character consistent.