The Alchemist and the Angel by Joanne Owen
|The Alchemist and the Angel by Joanne Owen|
|Genre: Confident Readers|
|Reviewer: Stefan Bachmann|
|Summary: A rather unique historical fantasy, well-researched and bursting with fascinating detail. It won't appeal to everyone, but those with a taste for colourful and slightly gothic folklore will love it. Joanne Owen was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 144||Date: May 2010|
|Publisher: Orion Children's Books|
When Jan's parents die of the plague, he is sent to the great city of Vienna to live with his aunt and uncle. His uncle is a distinguished alchemist, and, hoping to take the boy's mind off his grief, hires him as his apprentice. Jan loves the work, learns quickly, and soon the two of them are on the verge of perfecting a serum said to bring the dead back to life. But then his uncle is found dead, and Jan is being whisked off to Prague by his vain and calculating aunt. She has her own plans for the serum, and she will stop at nothing to accomplish them.
Something was missing from Joanne Owens' debut effort that made for an unsatisfying reading experience. It felt underdeveloped, strangely cold, and the dialogue grated terribly. But it had some good points as well, and I liked it enough that when her second book hit the review shelf I asked for it. I'm glad I did, because Owens' second book is a delight. It's fast-paced, odd, fascinating, and even with its flaws, so much more satisfying than its predecessor.
Like Puppet Master, Alchemist's main narrative is interspersed with notes and magical recipes, as well as a handful of tales from central European folklore. The pages on alchemy are great fun to read if you have an interest in that sort of thing, with detailed 'directions' on how to create the mandrakes, and golems, and the super-creepy homunculi, root-shaped men bred on the blood of drowned bats.
As for the stories within the story, it might put off some readers that they are only tied into the actual plot by the barest of threads. Still, I think they're make up much of the book's charm. They're strange and dark, somewhat akin to the original Grimm fairytales with their repetition and, well... grimness. Also, for being basically thrown crosswise into the proceedings they never really seemed to break the flow of things. I think they do much to add texture and richness to the book.
The whole thing has a very different feel to it than just about any piece of kid-lit I've read lately. It has a bit of science, a bit of fantasy, a bit of history, even a bit of steampunk. It also has characters who are somewhat cliché, clunky dialogue, and a slightly predictable plot. And yet somehow it still manages to feel fresh and sharp. Maybe it's the obscure fairytales the author uses, or the crystal-clear atmosphere, or simply the cumulative effects of her impeccable research. At any rate, the end result is rather unique, and when you close the book you won't help but feel you've learned a few things amongst all the magic and entertainment. That in itself almost makes this book worth picking up.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
Further reading suggestion: Alchemist reminded me a lot of Marcus Sedgwick's terrific Book of Dead Days duology, with its gloom, and doom, and creepy plot-turns. Dead Days hasn't been reviewed by Bookbag, but you can check out our reviews of Revolver and The Kiss of Death to get a taste for his style. For another book with a hint of folklore to it, try Livi Michael's Faerie Heart, a gloriously original fantasy set in the the distant past.
Joanne Owen was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.
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