Friday, 10 May 2013
Review: The Tower's Alchemist
The Tower's Alchemist by Alesha Escobar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Urban fantasy starring a competent female wizard/spy in Occupied France during World War II, with a truly fresh take on magic, vampires and werewolves. How could I resist?
It's a good story, too. There's a well-sustained tension between the professional and the personal, it's exciting without being a mindless action movie, and the big reveal at the end is not only a great setup for the next book but made me look back on the book I'd just read with a different perspective.
It's not without its flaws, though most of them are sentence-level copy edit issues. For some odd reason, the author avoids using "had" in her sentences, which means that the past-tense narration sometimes seems off. For example, "I wasn't sure how to respond because I thought they thrust this on me..." instead of "they had thrust this on me". Most often, it comes out as the narrator using "I've" when she should use "I'd".
There are a few homonym issues, too: peddled/pedaled, peaked/peeked, complimentary/complementary. The author also uses some fancy words that aren't quite the right words for the sentence they're in. They mean something like what she means, but the connotation isn't right.
All of these are something a good proofreader can fix, but there are a lot of them, about a hundred that I noticed (and I wasn't noting all the misplaced commas). For me, at least, this reduces my enjoyment of the book, and takes the language score down to two and a half stars, but I'm sure the author will get them fixed up before long.
I liked the main character, though I found most of the other characters (and there are many) a bit thin and unmemorable. I would have liked them to be described a bit more, even if it was just a couple of "tags" to help me remember them. Appearance, personal tics, anything would have helped. When, near the end, we came back to the characters in Britain that we'd seen near the beginning, I'd forgotten who most of them were. The main character, though, was a genuinely strong, capable woman, brave, loyal and compassionate, and she didn't get herself into trouble by doing stupid, ill-considered things that men had to rescue her from, like 90% of urban fantasy heroines. She did more rescuing than being rescued, in fact. That's worth three and a half stars for characters, even though the minor characters weren't as clearly drawn as I would have liked.
The plot is well-handled. There's a clear sense of purpose, a clear sense of progress, there are subplots which mesh into the main plot, and, as I mentioned, the reveal at the end worked very well to shift my perspective on the whole story. Four and a half stars.
Now, setting. This is urban fantasy, broadly defined ("within living memory" rather than "approximately present-day"), and there are some urban fantasy tropes that are growing a little tired. Vampires and werewolves are two of them. This book gives us "vampires" who have made demonic deals to get magical power by drinking the blood of wizards, and "werewolves" who are corrupted wizards degenerating into beastliness. It's great. The magic system itself, while not as clearly laid out as, say, a Brandon Sanderson magic system, is original and has plenty of scope for fun and interesting devices and spells. There are multiple different kinds and levels of magic user, which I enjoyed, and the narrator (and hence the author) shows ingenuity in the use of her gifts.
I did have a couple of quibbles with the setting. The spies appear to have very poor tradecraft, freely discussing among themselves who did what and where to find them, and revealing their identities after far too little verification. Maybe it's because I recently read Tim Powers' Declare, which is World War II spycraft with magic and extreme paranoia and lots of double agents, but this side of The Tower's Alchemist seemed a little loose to me. None of it was fatal to the plot, but it didn't help my suspension of disbelief.
Overall, though, I'm giving both the setting and the book as a whole four stars, because it has the kind of originality I always hope for in an indie book but rarely find, because it's a well-told story with a likeable character, and because I came out of it wanting to read more.
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