Fiction Reviews

A Conspiracy of Alchemists

(2013) Leisel Schwarz, Del Ray, £14.99, hrdbk, 378pp, ISBN 978-0-919-49863-0


This is the debut novel by British writer Leisel Schwarz, and unusual (for a first novel) in that it is the first in a series of the 'Chronicles of Light and Shadow': unusual because that shows great confidence on the part of the publishers, Del Ray (Random House) that this book is going to sell. More unusual because I hear that the author has signed a five book deal – not bad for someone without even a short story credit to her name. So is Random House’s confidence justified?

Well, fairies are mentioned in the first sentence, vampires in the third. Normally I would stop right there but reviewers do not get that option so I carried on. I am glad I did, because this is a well written, well constructed tale with engaging characters and a confident, articulate style. It’s steampunk, so don’t expect high art, but it works and it is entertaining.

This is the story of Eleanor Chance, who flies airships for a living, and who has a destiny she resists for most of the book. She agrees to take on a passenger and a mysterious, sealed cargo from Paris to London. The passenger, Marsh, is of course more than he seems and the cargo is much in demand. So much so, that they have to leave Paris in a hurry, without flight clearance, and with the French police shooting frantically at them.

When they get to England they find that Elle’s father has been abducted so they begin a chase across Europe in a gyrocopter chased by pirates in airships, on the Orient Express by thugs and nightwalkers (vampires) and through the streets of Constantinople by just about everybody. It all builds to a crescendo where things could get decidedly nasty.

Two things drive this book. One is the narrative, which pushes the action well, ramping up tension nicely but still giving space for characterisation. The second is the budding romance between Elle and March, telegraphed right from the start but holding the novel together throughout. This is very much a steampunk romance, but do not let that put you off: the mix is actually quite endearing.

The underlying theme of the series is the fight between the ‘Light’ and the ‘Shadow’, which on the surface sounds like straight good and evil. But some of the good guys – Marsh for instance, and the delightful nightcrawler Loisa – are attached to Shadow and the bad guys (the alchemists) are, I believe, aligned with the Light. Shadow is all about magic and Light about science and invention. As one rises the other wanes. By 1903, when the book is set, science and industry have reduced the power and influence of magic and Light and Shadow are out of balance. The whole system is normally held together by the Oracle, but when the book opens there isn’t a proper Oracle overseeing things. And when one starts to emerge, both Light and Dark want her to shore up their own position.

The fuzzy nature of Light and Shadow is important in making this book more than just a steampunk by numbers story. Characters flip from good to bad to good to somewhere in the middle and there’s lots if misdirection to keep you on your toes.

The book is a bit uneven, though. There is a prologue of sorts written by an absinthe fairy (really) which is misleading in tone and then the book proper kicks off chapter one with a line I wish I had written: ‘the opium den above the café du Aleix smelled of clove incense and oblivion’. Great line, but still a misdirect because the book is not about opium or oblivion, just as it is not about vampires and fairies. After a while the style loosens up and the story proper emerges, but for a few chapters the style seems a little forced, as if the text has been through a few too many revisions. It really settles down about half way through, and from that point on the story is a delight, so stick with it.

So, good world building, and a strong narrative. This book is the first in a trilogy, and the sequel is set up nicely. A bit Mercedes Lackey in style and approach maybe but don’t we all need a bit of romance in our lives? It’s gothic, it’s steampunk and it’s well written.

Mark Bilsborough

[Up: Fiction Reviews Index | SF Author: Website Links | Home Page: Concatenation]

[One Page Futures Short Stories | Recent Site Additions | Most Recent Seasonal Science Fiction News]

[Updated: 13.9.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]