Liesel Schwarz’s A Conspiracy of Alchemists lines up the usual suspects in steampunk fiction nowadays. Cue the headstrong female lead, throw in some airships, technological gizmos, and envious descriptions of fashion, coat everything in a veneer of brass and cogs. Yet this novel also attempts to move away from well-trodden territory, and you can tell straight away with the cheeky cover design. The Eiffel Tower establishes a setting away from good ol’ Britannia. Glowing glyphs and splashy neon font signal a flash of magic and a pinch of punk too. The end result: Schwarz’s debut novel is a fluffy steampunk adventure that toes the line of gaslamp fantasy. There are fairies, the occult, mad science, and secret conspiracies. What more can a reader ask for?
Elle Chance works as an airship smuggler, the most respectable job she can have as the daughter of hare-brained genius Professor Chance. She takes a job in Paris that appears simple enough: transporting a package across the Channel. Not too much trouble, right? Not until Elle realizes that what lies inside that package is more than it appears—and the same can be said for Mr. Marsh, the mysterious and brash man who accompanies it. Mr. Marsh is revealed to be a nobleman and a Warlock, part of a worldwide Council who battles against an ancient order of Alchemists, who are the daylight guardians of power-hungry vampires. Both sides are fighting over the cosmic balance of the universe between light and dark.
As it usually turns out in adventure stories like these, Elle has a destiny with the Warlocks, and the Alchemists will do anything possible to stop her from fulfilling it. The plot romps along as she and Mr. Marsh avoid assassination attempts and when the Alchemists kidnap Elle’s father, they race across Europe in order to save him.
Elle is a likeable character, but the constraints upon her agency left me frustrated—not with her, but her circumstances. Several times, she thinks she has a say in how she is treated, but it is all puppets-strings that pull her one way or another. Despite being positioned as a headstrong and independent character, Elle is kept under circumstances where she became subservient to other people’s whims. She tiffs and complains, (and I do too), especially at the turning point of the novel, when Elle is reduced to a damsel-in-distress. Although Elle eventually gains powers by accepting her destiny, the easy mental and emotional switch from her previous stubbornness to avoid it makes her acceptance come off as a sort of resignation on Elle’s part rather than a triumph. I retain hope, however, that Elle would gain further opportunities to prove her worth as strongly as she dishes out her pluckiness in later books.
Other characters are painted broadly, from Elle’s absent-minded inventor father to the various baddies sent in Elle and Marsh’s way. Despite being the romantic lead, I actually didn’t feel much for Marsh, perhaps because the plot signposts their restrained-but-mutual attraction from the get-go. The undertones of ownership implied in Marsh’s romantic overtures didn’t sit well with me, either.
A couple of the secondary characters I liked much more. Baroness Loisa Belododia has the grace and charm that vampire nobility should have, and the Turkish boy Inut was also a likeable rugrat that I wished had more than a bit part. The most intriguing character, however, is Patrice, moreso because of the emotional ambiguities behind his turncoat nature. His internal compromises between his hired duty and his personal morality kept me interested. A minor example is that he had the opportunity to kill off a close member of Elle’s household, but instead leaves her alone. I can’t tell whether the reason was because it would have made his mission messier or that he didn’t want to kill more than necessary.
I also wanted to understand more about the fairy world in the book. This certainly hasn’t been the first steampunk book I’ve seen that involves the fae, and a cute absinthe fairy serves as a key plot point. Aside from that, however, I’d be interested to what extent the fae become involved in this world, or whether it is just one of the many magical tidbits tossed into the mix.
In general, the book reads as a fantasy trying to put on a steampunk label and having it not quite fit. This book wasn’t quite to my taste, but its greatest strength lies in my fondness for Elle. Interested readers can follow her adventures in the sequel Clockwork Heart, coming out in August.
A Conspiracy of Alchemists is published by Del Rey. It is available now.