Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Review: A Conspiracy of Alchemists

A Conspiracy of Alchemists
A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I got this book through Netgalley, meaning I read it prior to publication (it's basically an E-ARC). I therefore have to qualify my complaints about the editing, since it hasn't yet had its final edit. I really hope the editor is a good one, though, who can pick up all of the odd partly-revised sentences, the double punctuation (comma and exclamation point, for example), the places where someone has apparently expanded the contractions (like "you're") and left the apostrophe in place, and occasional errors like "iambics and retours" instead of "alembics and retorts".

I'm fairly sure the number of bullets in the revolver isn't consistent, either, something else a competent editor will pick up.

Setting all that firmly aside, this is a difficult book to categorize. As the blurb says, there are elements of steampunk, urban fantasy and paranormal romance, and they didn't always work well together for me.

In particular, I found the romance elements cliched. When the romance plot started, I was put in mind of the short-lived Red Flag Act, which in the early years of automobiles required a man with a red flag to precede any such vehicle waving a red flag and periodically setting off fireworks. Which is to say, the romance was telegraphed pretty heavily.

I could have done with it being de-emphasized. The book is a decent pulp adventure with solid steampunk/urban fantasy foundations. It doesn't need a not-especially-well-done romance to be one of the main plotlines.

There was the classic moment where the man is trying to tell the woman something important to the plot, and the woman gets offended (for, as far as I could tell, plot reasons, because the conversation itself didn't seem to justify it adequately) and refuses to hear any more, and you just know that that's going to lead to trouble later. But it didn't. Not much later on he was able to give her the rest of the information before it became important. I'm not sure whether to applaud this as an averted trope or shake my head over the wasted setup.

There were a couple more jarring moments. For example, at one point it's suddenly revealed that Marsh speaks little or no Turkish. I had been assuming all along that he spoke fluent Turkish (given his age and his friendship with a previous Caliph), and that his conversations had been conducted in that language. That seemed more likely than that everyone he met in Constantinople, including a young boy, spoke fluent English.

On the upside, even if the big scene near the end was the classic robed-figures-chanting-around-a-virgin-chained-to-the-stone-altar setup, and even if it did go all Indiana Jones (I sometimes describe steampunk as "Indiana Jones in a bad Jules Verne costume"), at least the female character did something competent herself rather than waiting passively to be rescued. I am so sick of "plucky gels" who, when the chips are down, turn into Penelope Pitstop.

I enjoyed the Professor's dialogue, and wished that we'd seen him earlier (I certainly hope that if there is a sequel, as the ending signals, he gets more screen time). The climax, though troperific, was suspenseful and kept me reading. And I didn't want to shake the heroine very often at all, which for an urban-fantasy or steampunk heroine is impressive.

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