A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz
When dirigible pilot Elle Chance accepts an unusual cargo in Paris she finds herself in the middle of the deadly war between the Alchemists and the Warlocks.
The Alchemists will stop at nothing to acquire the coveted carmot stone and its key, and Elle must do everything in her power to thwart their diabolical plans.
Embarking on a perilous cross-continental adventure with the mysterious Mr Marsh, Elle is forced to question everything she ever knew about herself to fulfil her destiny and prevent a magical apocalypse…
The first thought that struck me when I finished reading A Conspiracy of Alchemists is that there is a wonderful sense of fun on every page. Liesel Schwarz is certainly skilled when it comes to putting the reader right in the midst of the frenetic, fast placed world she has created. Though things rattle along at breakneck speed, the good news is that for the most part, the character development doesn’t suffer because of this (more on that a bit later).
There are reverential nods to many classic adventure stories and I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to describe this succinctly. The best comparison I can come up with is – imagine a mash up of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with Moonlighting, and just a dash Bulldog Drummond wrapped up in a crispy steampunk-flavoured shell.
The heart of this novel is the relationship between Elle Chance and the enigmatic, and unexpected, new man in her life Mr Hugh Marsh. Schwarz is obviously having a ball when she wrote their interactions, Chance and Marsh do have some marvellous verbal sparring. The constant back and forth between the two is what made the characters for me. Even the descriptions of the pair are wonderfully evocative.
Mr Marsh had the long elegant fingers of a confidence trickster.
Schwarz also deftly weaves elements from the history of female emancipation into Elle’s narrative. Here is an intelligent, independent young woman fighting for the right to be treated as the equal of any man. It’s always great to see a strong female protagonist who can give as good as she gets, no helpless damsel’s in distress here.
The locations used in the novel all feel suitably steam-punky as well. Events are set at the dawning of the twentieth century and from the bustling streets of Paris and the historic canals of Venice to the markets of Istanbul you get a real sense of scope. There are also some splendid chapters set aboard the Orient Express that are a particular highlight. In a world where steam is still very much king, the opulence of the age and travel by airship or locomotive feels entirely appropriate. Blending these classic locales and modes of transport with a full-on adventure works perfectly. It makes it very easy to picture all the action as it unfolds
My only complaint, and it is relatively minor, is that I think the main villain Eustace Abercrombie feels a bit thin. Ellie and Hugh Marsh are wonderfully realised and it makes Abercrombie come across as two dimensional. There are a couple of moments where his sense of outrage and anger at our heroes seemed palpable, a bit more of that righteous fury would have helped to flesh out his character just a little bit more. When I’m caught up in an awesome adventure story, and in every other respect this is, I want my villains to be properly evil. Not Evil Lite™ but fully fledged, utterly without remorse, not someone-you-would-bring-home-to-visit-your-mother EVIL.
That small gripe aside, I can’t really fault any novel that takes the time to properly espouse the merits of a decent cup of good coffee, especially when it’s a Cappuccino. Overall, Conspiracy of Alchemists is a solid debut that contains more than enough action, adventure and plot to ensure I’ll be back for more. I’m looking forward to the sequel, A Clockwork Heart, already. Steam-punk fans would be wise to visit their nearest bibliographic emporium and seek this rather magnificent tome out.
Conspiracy of Alchemist is published by Del Rey and is available now.