Steampunk Book Review: A Conspiracy of Alchemists


I really wanted to love this book. Like, really really really wanted to love it. Not just because reviewers were hailing Liesel Schwarz’s first installment of The Chronicles of Light and Shadow as “a superb debut novel” when it was released in 2013, but also because I picked it up for free at Weekend at the Asylum in September so it gave me warm fuzzies just thinking about the convention. Unfortunately, you can’t always get what you want.

Here’s what went right. Schwarz started with a very interesting concept. The world is divided into Light and Shadow, Light being science and logic, and Shadow being the supernatural. But there is only so much energy out there to sustain both sides, so as one rises, in this case belief in scientific principles, the other side suffers. The book is populated by warlocks, alchemists, vampires, and fairies. She also had some really cool futuristic technology like a proto-helicopter, and a female protagonist who was a mechanical genius and airship pilot. So far so good.

The story centers on Elle Chance as she gets sucked into a plot by the alchemists to sieze control from their vampire overlords by kidnapping Elle’s father, a famous inventor, and building a machine to channel energy from the Shadow’s greatest source, the Pythia. As Elle soon discovers, she is the next in line for this dubious honor. The adventure takes her all over the world, and I loved that their time in England was merely a pitstop so the story was more multicultural than most. There are also some sections that are told through the eyes of a fairy who is living in a bracelet Elle is wearing, which was a novel approach and I liked it as a concept.

Here’s what didn’t work. I hated the protagonist. Like so many sci-fi/fantasy heroines, she is “feisty,” which I find often just means argumentative and stubborn, which Elle certainly is. Frankly, I found her to be quite thick-headed.  There are times that she asks questions which are clearly for the benefit of the reader (exposition), but that any person actually living in a world where artists actively seek the aid of absinthe fairies and you can encounter a vampire casually on the Orient Express would know the answer to even if she tries to stay our of Shadow affairs. There is also a time when her romantic interest tells her “Touching you is like drinking from a cool clean fountain after suffering from a great thirst. It is… perfection… But I know what that will do in time. We cannot. We must not.” And she takes it as an outright, he’s-just-not-that-into-you type of rejection. Was she even listening?!

A-Conspiracy-of-Alchemists American CoverI also felt like the writing was hit and miss. There were turns of phrase and descriptions that I really liked, but there were some real structural problems that turned me off. I always finish books once I start them, but it was more of a trudge than the whirlwind adventure I was hoping for. I actually blame Schwarz’ editor for the problems I found more than the author.

There were chapters that ended in an absolute, resounding THUD. There were other chapter endings that were meant to propel the reader forward like “a storm was coming” but there was no storm, and after Elle discovered her father’s flying machine it ended with “She had a plan”, but there actually was NO PLAN beyond “make machine go.” There was not yet enough information to make a plan. It seemed like the chapter had perhaps been lifted and moved to another place without being edited properly. Another time a chapter ended with Elle talking about how nice it was to have a friend like Patrice on whom she could thoroughly rely, and the placement alone made me sure he was going to betray her. If it had been buried in a chapter or I was left to narration rather than dialog to make this point it may not have raised such a red flag, but as it stands I was basically twiddling my thumbs waiting for the inevitable betrayal.

The most interesting part of the story actually comes in the epilogue, which many people will not read. I wish Schwarz hadn’t withheld the information from the main narrative. I am sure she was thinking about setting up the next book, but it would have added a more interesting dimension to the characters and story, which was a pretty dull supernatural romance as much as anything.

I also found it really hard to believe that the Warlocks couldn’t have known about Elle sooner. Her mother had been Pythia and her father was a famous inventor. It’s not like he even changed his name or was doing anything to hide. The existence of a strong Pythia is vital to the survival of the Warlocks’ way of life, and they HADN’T been watching her? They keep stressing how dangerous it is for them, not to mention Elle, to be untrained and unprotected, so why didn’t they bother to seek her out? Perhaps the question will be answered at later time in the trilogy, but for the duration of this book it felt like a major plot hole.

So in the end, would I recommend it? Meh. It was fine, but did not live up the hype. If I were an editor, I’d love a crack at it because I think there is potential for it to be really great, but I don’t love it as is. Because I am me, I will probably still read the other installments, A Clockwork Heart and Sky Pirates at some point, but I do not agree with other reviewers who put this book on the same level as work by Gail Carriger or hail Schwarz as “the soon-to-be high-priestess of British Steampunk.”

Am I wrong? Did you read this book and love it? Please comment below!

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