I went into this thinking it was a YA adventure in steampunk, but to my surprise and delight, this is more of a fantastical historical fiction novel geared towards adults. A Conspiracy of Alchemists definitely will hold cross-over appeal for both audiences, but Liesel Schwarz does a fine job of creating a viable, complex world, one that is filled with magic and fairies, Nightwalkers and alchemists. Set in an alternate world where magic and technology are used interchangeably, A Conspiracy of Alchemists is a fun, exciting adventure with enough twists and turns and unforeseen betrayals to keep the pages quickly turning. The first in the series of The Chronicles of Light and Shadow, it works equally well as a standalone or an introduction to a new succession of creative fantasy and historically infused steampunk novels.
For a large part of the novel, I coasted along; enjoying myself, but not overtly involved. The beginning is excellent, as is the final 30%. The middle gets a bit muddled and I started to think 3.5 would be as high as I could go with Elle's story. And then Schwarz hits her stride, and my internal rating meter kept clicking higher and higher as the action picked up and the pace raced along. This was a fast and fun read, one that left me desperate for an ARC of the second, but it's not without a share of stumbles and problems. For all that it's plagued by an unnecessary (and unneeded..) romance, A Conspiracy of Alchemists is a strong, entertaining novel when it focuses on magic, secretive societies and the mad ash across Europe to thwart an eeeevil plan and save the day.
Speaking of the romance, my antipathy for it is purely subjective. For their parts, I liked Hugh and Elle enough, but together, I felt no chemistry, no attraction. They seemed best suited as "affectionate friends" and their evolution from that to "in love" happened too fast, and without a believable foundation. I found both characters to be a tad overdone and unrelateable, but they found a way to endear themselves to me, for better or worse. And you know how I feel about a girl who can and does save herself - not always entirely alone, but you can bet that Elle is no shrinking violet, afraid to defend herself or get her hands dirty. I wish more time had been spent on her development, and her personality a bit more fleshed out, but then, this is the first in a forthcoming series. She, and Marsh, will have plenty of time to grow into their roles as their adventures continue on in A Clockwork Heart.
One thing that is far from a problem is the complex and intricate world and alternate history Liesel Schwarz has dreamed up for her characters to live in. This is great world-building - and it's expressed in small doses, through deeds and dialogue, rather than a pace-stifling and interest-killing infodump. Though, unfortunately, the novel gets lost a bit in a tepid (especially in the middle section), obvious romance, the world and details are subtly woven into the narrative. The magic and technology/steampunkery are of the highest sort in A Conspiracy of Alchemists. The author weaves the supernatural into the steampunk easily and well. It allf it, and worked, in an entirely new way. There are the expected automatons, steam-powered carriages, corsets, dirigibles one sees in nearly every steampunk novel, but Schwarz doesn't stop there. In fact, her original creations were some of the most interesting pieces, from the Tesla spark prods (WANT!), to the gyrocopter to the "combobulator optic loupes."
The magical aspect of the novel is almost as strong as the steampunk. From Alchemists, to Warlocks, to absinthe fairies, there are some old favorites (Nightwalkers = vampires), but this is an author that keeps it all fresh and new. The minimal touches of Greek mythology round out the system used for both the Light and the Dark sides of the magical spectrum. Elle is set to come into her power for book number two, with an important role in the world, and with a minor antagonist still around to emerge as a new, dangerous big bad, I look forward to seeing what new aspects Schwarz will utilize next.
A Conspiracy of Alchemists is pure entertainment. What is lacks in depth, it makes up for in excellent action scenes, a can-do suffragete protagonist and wonderful worldbuilding. I would recommend this for: fans of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, as well as fans of Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris's series Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. If you want a quick, amusing read with stops to Paris, Oxford, Venice, Genoa, Nice and Constantinople, by all means, this is the book for you.