Monday, 7 October 2013

A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz

Blurb: "In a Golden Age where spark reactors power the airways, and creatures of Light and Shadow walk openly among us, a deadly game of Alchemists and Warlocks has begun.

When an unusual cargo drags airship-pilot Elle Chance into the affairs of the mysterious Mr Marsh, she must confront her destiny and do everything in her power to stop the Alchemists from unleashing a magical apocalypse.

Combining the best elements of nineteenth century gothic fiction with contemporary Steampunk, adventure, romance and the supernatural, Liesel Schwarz has crafted a truly exceptional debut, the first book in The Chronicles of Light and Shadow trilogy."

I loved this - the first novel in a series of Steampunk adventures by Liesel Schwarz. It's a proper, rollicking chase across Europe by helicopter, airship and Orient Express, taking in Paris and Venice and Constantinople. (It’s a lot less ordinary and generic than the blurb above makes it sound.) On the way we - along with doughty pilot heroine Elle - face all kinds of marvellous set-pieces involving vampiric 'Nightwalkers' and hair-raising battles in the air. I can really see this as a glossy movie, with lots of starry cameos and action sequences as our hero and heroine racket about - falling into love and into deep distrust and suspicion - and then into deadly disaster as they get injured, kidnapped, tied up and taken to be sacrificed by a terrible magic cult.

There's lots to establish here, as there is in any grand novel series like this. The reader needs to know what this alternate history feels and looks like. We need to know how the magic works; what the monsters are; who the villains and heroes are. And we need to know what the big quest is all about. Liesel Schwarz very cleverly keeps it fairly simple here – putting us on a quest to find Elle’s scientist father, and only gradually (thorough a series of bumpy landings and shock revelations) giving away the fact that Elle is crucial in this world. She’s going to become the Oracle – a magical figure sought after by various spooky interest groups. Schwarz seizes hold of a strong through-line and drags us with her through her story – and doesn’t deluge us with too much detail or explanations about how her world ‘works.’ She keeps the whole thing moving.

Also, importantly, she introduces us to some great secondary and cameo characters. I loved the absinthe fairy who accompanies our heroes inadvertently on their quest – and also Dracula’s fabulous niece, with whom Elle has a heart-to-heart on the Orient Express as the undead old dame makes her way home to the Carpathians for the holidays. Throughout I felt that there was a streak of delicious dark humour that was trying to work its way to the surface of the book. In amid all the bloody dangers and macabre secrets – there’s a great sense of fun here. I hope the books that follow on will continue in this vein and perhaps give us more of the comedy and the fun.

The thing that Steampunk has more than any other fantasy sub-genre is wit and relish in its own absurdity. It takes itself too seriously at its own peril - however, judging by the signs in this first instalment, I’m pleased to say I don’t think Liesel Schwarz’s series will make that error. If it keeps on in this breezy, breakneck, genial fashion – I’ll be quite happy to stick along for the ride.

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