Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian

Zoe Faust, alchemist, herbalist and semi-immortal, has stopped her long years of wandering across America to finally settle in her new home in Portland. She’s finally ready to set down some roots and let go of the pain of the past.

But her fresh start wasn’t intended to include a stow-away gargoyle in her storage crates. Dorian needs an alchemist, desperately, as his body is turning back to stone and only a studious alchemist can reverse that if they can interpret the book he has…

…which is then stolen at the same time as a murder victim is dumped on her porch. Not exactly the most welcoming of homewarmings.

We have a lot of original elements to this book which first drew me to it. The whole use of Alchemy, a form of magic that has very little in the way of flashy moves or deus-ex story fixing definitely intrigues me. It has a presentation of longevity that manages to be angsty but in a more reasonable fashion than the over the top dramatic moping I’ve come to know and loathe. A gargoyle is definitely a nice touch and it all comes together very well. Even the way Zoe is inserted into the mystery generally works well – it gives her a motive and a need to be involved without any sense of the protagonist randomly inserting themselves where they don’t belong.

There’s also a lot of research in this book that really shows in the writing – the history that has been delved to has informed the characters and added some nice substance to the overall book

This is all very promising but the plot falls down in one main way – the pacing. The pacing of this book is really slow, there’s a lot of time spent describing situations and experiences and Zoe’s past. There’s also a lot of time spent with Zoe being involved in Brixton’s life and his drama and even more time spent cooking and describing that cooking in detailed terms. On top of this we have her moving into the new rickety house and the problems inherent with that and her general getting by in her new neighbourhood. It’s frustrating because we’re hammered home by Dorian how very very urgent and essential it is that a solution to his petrification be found but there’s absolutely no urgency from the characters themselves, the narrative or any interaction.

In some ways, though, this slowness adds to the theme of Zoe not really knowing what to do and having all this urgency she has few tools to deal with. Ultimately, Zoe is severely out of her depth. She isn’t an investigator and she doesn’t want to be one, she has spent much of the last few decades keeping to herself and keeping her secrets – these are things she wants to go on doing. Still, even with that thematic note, the story needed advancing and there just needed to be more urgency injected into the characters – Zoe taking regular leisurely walks or stopping for tea destroy any sense of her being hurried or being even slightly aware of the time constraints she’s under. I’m not saying they’re poorly done – she managed to make the food sound pretty appetising, for example – but they were out of place and often severely in the way. This isn’t a recipe book and in storyline with such urgency, I shouldn’t feel like I’ve been dropped into one

She’s also very unwilling to do all the things that are so standard in the genre- breaking and entering, interfering with evidence, etc. Zoe doesn’t view these things as acceptable or something she is capable of achieving or something she should be doing which I do like. I actually really like how so many of the common “investigative” tropes are skewered – Zoe protesting about evidence, the grand detective gathering etc – I do appreciate a good sporking.

Characterisation is generally very good in terms of the details and development of the characters. I know a lot about Zoe and Dorian and Brixton and even side characters like Blue. What I also appreciate is that even minor characters like Brixton’s mother and the grumpy gossip Olivia are presented in a well rounded light even though their negative traits are most prominent – they’re more than just caricatures of unpleasantness. Even the most minor of characters (almost) have sufficient information about them to make them feel real and full persons. It creates a really strong foundation for this world and book setting because there is such a real effort to make everything so real

The problem is that there’s a whole lot of tell rather than show in this characterisation and I’m not sure how relevant or even realistic it is. I’m not sure why Blue shared her life story in as much detail as she did. I think Olivia volunteered a lot of personal information very early. UI love that they’re characterised – but we don’t see well rounded characters, the characters introduce us to their well-roundedness. I also find Zoe and Dorian really hammer home their sad pasts at often entirely irrelevant times (exploring tunnels in the dark together looking for lost children? Now is clearly the time to talk about our mutual sad pasts!)  and I’m not entirely sure how much having these sad pasts (especially Zoe’s two-fold sad past) really adds to either character or couldn’t have just been inferred. In some ways I think I may be suffering from genre overload – because the tragic backstory is nearly compulsory in this genre so it has lost all meaning for me. It’s reached a point where it feels like Zoe has to have a sad past because an Urban Fantasy protagonist simply has to at this point.

Which also brings me to that “almost all characters” thing up there – because we have Max Liu who is pretty glaring in his lack of development. Cynically, I almost feel like the whole book was written and an editor or publisher suddenly gasped “but where is her love interest! SHE MUST HAVE ONE!” and Max was crowbarred into a narrative that didn’t really have a place for him.

Diversity wise, Max Liu is Asian but, as I said, his role in the book is odd. He’s in a few scenes but not really involved in them. I don’t remember any other POC and there are no LGBT or disabled people.

A last little complaint – I don’t know if it’s an editing issue or if maybe the author speaks French but doesn’t always write it – but there’s a lot of French in this book and some of it is wrong – phonetically it works, but that’s not how the words are spelled.

In the end I find myself almost searching for more positive things to say about this book because there’s a lot about it I liked and enjoyed – but there are also a lot of problems and, in all honestly, I can’t say they’re insignificant or ignorable. I managed to enjoy the book despite the issues with pacing and excess tangents but if someone turned round to me and said “I just couldn’t get through it” I would understand why.