Strange Alchemy (2017) has the unusual distinction of being Gwenda Bond’s first and latest published novel — originally released in 2012 as Blackwood by Strange Chemistry, indie publisher Angry Robot’s YA imprint, this novel is one of many to find new life elsewhere after Strange Chemistry’s brief tenure. For readers who, like myself, are reading Strange Alchemy after already becoming familiar with Bond’s style, this novel is an interesting look at where her career started, with glimpses of the characterizations and themes she’s frequently implemented in subsequent books like Girl in the Shadows and Lois Lane: Fallout.
Miranda Blackwood has lived her entire life on Roanoke Island, doing her best to suffer the stares and insults from the other residents, and generally keeping to herself. According to centuries of local tradition and folklore, her family is descended from one of the original sixteenth-century English colonists — despite the entire colony somehow disappearing — and her family line is cursed due to the traitorous actions of that progenitor, unable to ever leave the island by any means. Her mother died when she was a child, her father is a hopeless alcoholic, and her only true friend is an adorable golden retriever named Sidekick. One night, while assisting with the local theater’s production of The Lost Colony, Miranda sees a vision of an enormous black ship with strange sails floating through the sky, and the next morning, 114 people have gone missing, including her father.
News of the missing townspeople reaches Grant Rawling, descended from another original colonist, attending Jackson Academy in Kentucky as part of a self-imposed exile. Grant hears and sometimes sees spirits, but only when he’s on Roanoke, so he went through a period of outrageous behavior when he was thirteen in order to be sent away. When the mass disappearance is discovered, Grant’s father — the chief of police — asks him to come home to see if there’s anything his special abilities can reveal. Grant knows Miranda is involved and that their fates are linked together, though he isn’t sure how, or what the two of them are supposed to do to solve the mystery.
Miranda and Grant are still in high school, but Miranda has a credible balance of world-weariness and naïveté born from lifelong isolation and the necessities of caring for a parent who can’t/won’t care for himself. She’s smart, a loyal friend to the few people she’s been able to connect with, and her determination to do what’s right at any cost is admirable. On the other hand, Grant is somehow savvy enough to pick nearly any lock, outthink highly-trained FBI agents, or escape from almost any confinement, but he casually sprinkles his fingerprints around the interior of a locked building and then is surprised when he is later caught. His insistence that he knows best brings down all kinds of very real trouble on his and Miranda’s heads, and yet there are no substantial consequences for his actions. As a teenager, I probably would have thought Strange Alchemy was pure wish-fulfillment candy, but as an adult, I’m horrified by the terrible choices these children make. Moreover, I have to question the logic of a police chief pulling his son from school on the off-chance that Grant might be able to talk to spirits as the first substantial course of action when over one hundred people go missing. That’s not just bad parenting, that’s terrible police work.
Another marks against Strange Alchemy was the double-whammy of “insta-love” and “star-crossed lovers” tropes; I find the former to be tiresome, while the latter can be effective if given time to develop in a believable fashion. Paired in a short novel, however, they were simply too much, and had a tendency to overwhelm the better aspects, like the mystery at hand or the genuinely creepy atmosphere. Bond’s inclusion of real-world details, like the play The Lost Colony — which is actually performed at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site — and the historically documented details about the colony itself, were a welcome addition. I hope they’ll inspire readers to do some research of their own, and perhaps even make a trip to Roanoke Island if given the chance.
If you haven’t had the chance to enjoy any of Gwenda Bond’s other novels, Strange Alchemy is a good place to start with her impressive body of work. I’m pleased to be able to say that her characters and overall style have only gotten stronger with time (such as in her CIRQUE AMERICAN and LOIS LANE series), and equally pleased to say that the sole aspect of her novels which hasn’t changed is her commitment to sneaking educational tidbits under readers’ noses.