The Accidental Alchemist – Gigi Pandian

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Accidental Alchemist #1

A long-lived alchemist in a new city gets caught up in strange doings when her shipped goods turn out to include a living gargoyle, her intended building contractor turns up dead outside her door, and a key book is stolen. She must race against time to save a friend’s life.

The Czech language is not written in any variant of Cyrillic, and as far as I know never has been. In fact, a quick glance at Wikipedia will tell you that its interesting and regular Latin-based orthography is used for transliteration of other languages. Getting the Czech alphabet wrong is unfortunately just one of the many errors that crops up in The Accidental Alchemist.

I don’t read a lot of urban fantasy, but this book had other aspects that drew me in, including a vegan protagonist, a setting in Portland, Oregon, and the aforementioned Czech elements. I’m part Czech myself, but it didn’t take much to spot this alphabetical error. There isn’t that much about else Czechia, and most of the rest seems alright.

Pandian does use a fair amount of French and some other languages. Unfortunately, she occasionally uses them incorrectly; more likely the result of bad memory or transliteration than of machine translation (“sait” instead of “c’est”). Since two key character are said to speak French well, it’s notable.

The story is set in Portland, the city I call home when I pretend to have one. It’s always nice to see familiar places in a new light. Unfortunately (again), Pandian’s Portland is a caricature of the real city – all new age hippies all the time. Even in the Hawthorne district where part of the story is set, there’s more variety than this, and Hawthorne is no more stagnant than any other neighbourhood. It doesn’t look like this now, and really never did. Just as irritating, Pandian’s knowledge of the geography is pretty weak – a character lives near enough to Hawthorne to walk over, but also lives on a hill. Thing is, close-in East Portland is flat. Really flat; almost Florida-flat. The only hill worthy of the name is a volcano, and very few people live on it. It’s nit-picking, sure, but a quick look at an online map is all it takes these days.

I’ve been a vegan for a long time now, and on this front, the book really does deliver. It’s a little heavy-handed on the ‘magical herbs will cure all ills’ angle, but for the rest, it’s great. The recipes sound delicious (barring a strange fondness for beets), and most of the dishes are really things that vegans really eat. Happily, Pandian includes actual recipes as an appendix, and I plan to try some of them out.

I wish I could be more positive about the book, but on two of the three above points, it doesn’t deliver. More to the point, the writing is consistently awkward, both at the sentence level and plot-wise. It reads like a fair early draft that needed a harsh editorial hand and didn’t get it. The prose isn’t smooth, the characters neither deep nor credible. An example – our narrator has been alive for hundreds of years, fending for herself in a cruel world. Yet she seems almost deferential to a few cocky teenage kids, and it’s not because she’s using reverse psychology on them.

All in all, I can’t recommend this. It’s lighthearted, but also thin. If you’re a vegan tired of reading about heroes eating steak, this may be the book for you – the frequent mentions of food are mouth-watering. But if you’re reading for the story, you’re probably in the wrong place.

Received free copy of book in exchange for honest review.

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