Theosebia “Thea” Hope is a young alchemist living and working with her mother, Margeurite, also an alchemist, in revolutionary Normandy, France. Her mother seems to be on the hunt for a new patron, but seems to want to send Thea away. Her reasons for doing so become a little clearer when she assaults Thea after creating the White Elixir, a substance that turns any base metal into silver, and descending into a mysterious madness.
Thea has a rocky and competitive relationship with her mother, but she also wants to cure her mother’s madness, so she decides to follow her mother’s former apprentice Will to the UK, and first lands in Oxford, where her estranged father lives and works.
Her initial relationship with her father doesn’t fare much better, and after meeting his patron and assistant, all hell breaks loose when said patron, an Italian noble, steals Thea’s notes and attempts to make the White Elixir. The apprentice, Dominic, kills the noble in self defense. Feeling defeated, Thea and Dominic flee Oxford for London, where Will is staying.
Turns out that Will had sold her out to a German noble, who wants the Philosopher’s Stone for himself. But, as Thea and Dominic soon discover, there’s a curse, or something that causes every ambitious alchemist to succumb to madness in their quest for the Stone, and that there may be a *heavy* price to pay for creating it.
So the bulk of the novel from here on out takes place at the German noble’s London residence, and while Will suffers from consumption and Dominic succumbs to the mysterious madness, Thea’s the only one who can actually make the Stone. So she does, under the watchful eye of the German noble’s hired henchmen, who are not all entirely evil themselves. This part is pretty exciting, as Thea ends up in the grip of the mysterious madness while she attempts to create the Stone.
At first, I thought this was going to be another annoying “men are all evil” feminist novel, but it’s not. Yes, the narrative is first-person perspective, told by Thea, and yes she is understandably upset when her father hesitates to claim her as his daughter when they meet, so we do get a lot of “men suck” thoughts from Thea, but she realizes that not all men are bad. The head henchman, Valentin, is rough, stern, mostly loyal to his employer but also quickly learns to respect Thea and repeatedly tries to keep her from losing her mind to the madness. He also has a grudge against Will due to Will’s treatment of one of his employer’s daughters, who he was in love with.
Dominic is consistently a decent character throughout the story, and is pretty much Thea’s only real friend, right up until the end, so she remains very much motivated to use the Stone to cure him of the madness.
You can tell Thea’s father, Professor Vellacott, is a decent guy who has been blindsided by the fact that he actually has a daughter, one nearly grown, and is unsure as to what to do or how to handle it. But Thea is pretty resistant, believing (with some justification) that all he wants is the work she and her mother had done to make the White Elixir, which is the final “step” to getting the famed Stone.
I also kind of had to roll my eyes at Thea’s assertion that the Europeans disdained the writings of an Arab alchemist that had gotten further along in creating the Stone than any other alchemist. It does serve as a handy explanation as to why alchemy didn’t get very far in Europe, but it still bugged me. It’s a minor part of the novel and I got over it as the story went on, but I can’t help myself – I have to mention it.
As I said, this is told via a first-person perspective, and the novel is at its strongest when Thea’s in the grips of the mysterious madness. We do eventually discover the true nature of the madness and of the Stone itself. I don’t want to spoil the novel, so I’ll leave you with this: Thea and the others learn that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Thea makes the right decision in the end.
So I highly recommend this, and I am so grateful to Wednesday Books and NetGalley for letting me review the book!