Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review: The Accidental Alchemist

The Accidental Alchemist The Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

J.K. Rowling makes it look so easy: come up with a nice, broad premise, people it with intriguing characters, and let the narrative carry you away.

Pandian starts out with a fun-sounding premise – this time it’s a world of secret alchemists living among the rest of us – and has a nice start with characters when she invents a French-inflected gourmet-cooking gargoyle who’s slowly turning back to stone. She even writes well at times; the opening chapters open with a nice crispness and get us into the story without any tedious description of background. It moves.

But…there’s a next wave of challenges that emerge when you’re trying to do this stuff. Rowling’s real genius comes in her ability to invent such a world and then fully people it. That is, she doesn’t just give us characters; she gives us characters who pursue their own stories off stage. As Harry grows and experiences things, they do too. The others aren’t props. They’re characters living their own stories in this magical world and then finding those stories intersecting with Harry’s.

That’s the part that proves tougher for Pandian. Our protagonist, Zoe, is 300 years old and a past-mistress of alchemy. She’s discovered the secret of eternal life and, well, we mostly just fast-forward 250 years. There’s a back story that emerges slowly – a dead brother, a dead lover – but it’s tangential and feels like a glimpse of coming attractions more than especially relevant to this story.

And this story seems mostly superimposed on the magical world beneath it. A handyman is murdered when he arrives to do work on Zoe’s new house. This is generally a sweet, cozy, toned story. A murder! On her doorstep! Yeah, it’s just sort of there. A darker novel might get away with that, but this is a woman who takes in a 14 year old neighbor. The fact of a murder ought to matter more, but it’s mostly just a convenience of the plot. It doesn’t fit with the tone, and it doesn’t seem necessary.

As the novel moves forward, the fantasy elements of the story lose their technicolor and turn to gray. They become useful facts in the quest to solve this “cozy” murder mystery rather than a real and meaningful change to the way we ought to see existence. We get suspects, and then our alchemist, gargoyle, and teenager use their respective talents to clear or convict them. It deteriorates from a glimpse at a brand new way of thinking about the world (as one where hidden knowledge has produced a caste of near-eternal humans and exotic creatures) to a Miss-Marple-with-mercury.

This is the first in a series of such “mysteries, and, while I certainly envy Pandian that sort of a contract and security as a writer, I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for her, too. She’s a better writer than this concept; I can feel that. She must have learned a lot from writing this – which has its occasional charms – but now, rather than develop a whole new story that might allow her to avoid the pitfalls she’s hardwired into her world (a world where we need fresh crimes to move the story forward but where the tone doesn’t accommodate them) she has to keep working in it.

There’s something here, but not enough. It’s too bad Pandian won’t get the chance for a long time to start over with a blank canvas, and maybe a new narrative that can carry us away rather than take us back in circles to where we started.

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