The Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian is the first in a new mystery series; unfortunately, it didn’t leave me much interested in reading the next two. Pandian has some decent ideas to work with, but issues with plausibility, pacing, choice of detail, and style had me thinking about giving up from about the halfway point on. To be honest, had it not been a review book, I almost certainly would have, making this one a “not recommended” from me.
Zoe Faust, a centuries-old alchemist who specializes in plants, has just relocated from France to Portland, seeking, she says, a more normal life. Normal, however, is not in the cards, something she quickly realizes when out of her just-uncrated belongings hops a living gargoyle, one who tells her he is slowly dying and she — thanks to her alchemical knowledge — is his only hope. The gargoyle (Dorian Robert Houdin) would be bad enough, but soon Zoe is embroiled in a murder investigation and then an attempted murder investigation. Throw in a troublesome yet needy teen boy, and things quickly go from bad to worse and from worse to potentially disastrous, if not fatal.
Stylistically, the language is generally flat or simplistic or just plain awkward. Exposition or historical tidbits are often clumsily inserted into the text, more interruptions than digressions. Plus, there are several stylistic tics that just got to me after a while, such as Dorian’s constant “Mon Dieu!” exclamations (which made him sound more a caricature of a Frenchman than an actual Frenchman). Somewhat in that same vein was the odd amount of page-space/detail given to food in the novel. Dorian is a gourmet chef, while Zoe is a committed vegan/herbalist, one who believes strongly that one’s diet is essential to one’s physical and mental/spiritual health. Which is fine, but at times I felt like I was reading not characterization but propaganda (and I say this, by the way, as one who has been a strict pesco-vegetarian for over 30 years). At one point one of my notes simply says, “Enough with the food!”. In her afterward, Pandian offers up some recipes, and I wish she had done just that and removed about 90 percent of the food details in the actual narrative. Pandian also had a habit of repeating certain lines (not verbatim but concepts).
Beyond the style issues, I also had several problem with the plot of The Accidental Alchemist, the most frequent being a lack of plausibility. This began from the start when Dorian is shocked to learn he is in America and not in France, even though he was awake in the a crate the entire time it was shipped from France; it was just impossible for me to believe he could have traveled in that crate and not realized he was flying. Later, Zoe is not allowed in her house because of it being a crime scene, but even though she is at least a person of interest (and perhaps an actual suspect), she’s allowed to stay in her trailer fifteen feet from the taped off area. This sort of problem arose again and again, making the entire work feel not fully thought out or closely edited in ways large and small — big plot moves or small points like a character with a major limp later being described as “running through the streets.” Sometimes the contradictions were simply infuriating, as when a character says of a trio of teens being in the city’s old tunnels: “The tunnels were probably a lot safer than what was going on above ground.” This despite the fact that the character was well aware that someone had badly injured themselves down there, that police had been investigating there, and that one of the characters had said they’d seen “monsters” down there. Coming after those pronouncements, the idea that anyone, let alone teens, was “safer” there was just mystifying.
While Zoe is likable enough, I never fully bought her as someone with hundreds of years of life experience, either in her thoughts or her actions. Other characters were either too obtuse too often, were too coincidentally knowledgeable (one about ancient alchemy, another about herbs, and so on) in relatively arcane topics, or were, like Dorian’s “French-iness” more caricature than richly developed realistic people. This extended to the general Portland population, which was portrayed as nearly entirely bohemian — more the outsider view of Portland than its reality (not to say there aren’t a lot of bohemians or “crunchies” there, but this was more along the lines of Portlandia than an attempt to realistically portray the diversity of any urban culture.
I don’t like to belabor flaws, so I’ll stop there. As always in these cases, I wish I could be more positive about a work that an author obviously put their heart into, not to mention their time and sweat, but in this case, that wasn’t enough. Not recommended.