A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz

A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz

The Chronicles of Light and Shadow Volume One

Published by Del Rey Books UK, February 2013

ISBN: 978 0 091949 860

384 pages

Review by Mark Yon

Very promising debut from a new author.

This is a steam punk romance, in all senses of the word. There’s a love story, combined with a love of technology and some travel across Europe to strange and exotic places. Despite its obviousness (in that it’s pretty clear where it’s going from the beginning) there’s enough energy and enthusiasm here to make this an enjoyable read.

Think the cover on this one sums it up nicely. Young feisty heroine, clockwork gears around the edges and a background of airships. Eleanor/Elle Chance is a likeable, if rather tempestuous, heroine who finds herself as charter pilot for her dirigible, the Water Lily, enmeshed in taking on a freight run that ends up being more than she expected. The result is lots of running headlong, secret identities and even a little romance when she encounters Mr. Marsh.

So far, so good. It’s an interesting combination in that it combines the technological paraphernalia of steampunk – dirigibles, sparking electrical contraptions, locomotives, gyrocopters – which are then combined with decidedly non-steampunk elements. Behind the science we have characters who live in a world balanced between shadow and light, with alchemy and magic, and even vampires (here called Nightwalkers).

The main plot point is that there is a situation that has been going on for years in that, to paraphrase Larry Niven, the magic is running out. This Victorianesque time of invention and change has meant that rational science is replacing the aeons-old way of things, which is affecting the balance between the forces of order and chaos. A new Oracle is needed to rebalance things, one that can bring much needed energy to the forces that maintain equilibrium.  Our heroine is not only involved in this matter, but also in a plot which involves her traveling from France to England and then Constantinople, retrieving her kidnapped scientist father and stopping the forces of evil from creating a device that threatens to permanently change the balance between the world of shadow and light.

If you take pleasure in your steampunk being full of mechanical chicanery, alchemist anarchy, hot airship action, romance, tea and cake, with a touch of the supernatural thrown in, this is one you’ll enjoy a great deal.

I found this reminiscent of the Studio Ghibli anime movies, which to my mind can only be a good thing. There’s a real joy in the storytelling and it comes across as you read it. Generally the dialogue’s not wincingly twee, the places visited give the reader a definite itch to travel there and the plot’s quite entertaining, although it probably is not one to think about for too long.

For those Gail Carriger fans looking for a new author to try, I think you’ll like this one. (I actually preferred this one to the last Parasol Protectorate I read.) If you doubted it before, steampunk is cool – and this is a pretty enjoyable, feel-good example. 

Mark Yon, February/March 2013

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