The Scarlet Alchemist by Kylie Lee Baker
Hodderscape, hardback, £16.99
Reviewed by Nadya Mercik
When I looked at the blurb of The Scarlett Alchemist, I was intrigued by the mixture of the Chinese world and alchemy, although, in general, I don’t read many YA novels. In the end, the book turned out to be rather engaging thanks to the charismatic protagonist and all the creative-by-necessity ways she had to use alchemy. The stakes got rather high at times, and overall, it was a fast, easy and entertaining YA read.
Fan Zilan lives with her aunt, uncle and cousins in a southern province of China. Her mother is dead, and her father has disappeared long ago. He was from Scotia, which makes Zilan a hunxie – mixed race and somewhat an outsider. Since her aunt and uncle are getting old and not feeling well, Zilan, with her cousins, runs the míngqì – clay tomb figurines – shop and occasionally resurrects dead with forbidden alchemy for extra income. She and her cousins are preparing for state exams – Zilan in alchemy, Wenshu and Yufei to become scholars. They need to pass them because it is the only way for them to break free from poverty and be able to support themselves and their elderly family members who are unable to work anymore. Just before the first exam, a young man appears seeking Zilan and offers her money to go with him to the capital city and… resurrect him when he dies (which he believes will happen shortly). Zilan refuses – a one-time payment isn’t going to support her family forever. Besides, becoming a royal alchemist is her dream. However, as she passes the first round, she eventually travels to the capital, only to meet the stranger again and find out about his high status. Zilan gets involved with the royal family and all the court intrigues and conspiracies. It turns out there is much more to being a royal alchemist than simply practising the craft, and the Empress desires eternal life. Zilan will have to find ways to protect her dearest and stay true to herself while discovering secrets about her past.
Kylie Lee Baker draws a stratified society of China, where the rich gorge themselves on life gold that stops them from ageing, and the poor have to pay high taxes and other, flesh, sort of levies at times. Alchemy requires a lot of ingenuity together with the knowledge and ability to wield gems’ and metals’ properties, at times in very creative ways. It is bigger than staying in the lab and covers everything from transformations and healing to battle applications (expect monsters and fight scenes).
Zilan is one of those no-nonsense, stubborn and straightforward characters, yet her appearance and origin as a hunxie give her lots of insecurities. She is fully accepted in the family, and yet she keeps asking herself whether they truly see her that way or she will never be considered on the same level as her cousins Wenshu and Yufei by her uncle and aunt. In such a misaligned society, she has to fight a lot of prejudice and obstacles during her exams, but when they are over, Zilan has to confront the fact that her childish dream of being a royal alchemist differs from what she actually becomes.
In the content and historical notes, Baker warns us that the story is an alternative Tang dynasty history – it is based on real historical figures and draws inspiration from Chinese history, but in the end, the story feels fantastical rather than historical. It is definitely a more feminist story than the real history would probably allow. Wu Zetian was the first and last Empress of China, a concubine clawing a throne for herself, but in the novel, not only the Empress but both Zilan and Yufei are disinclined to get married and set themselves to build careers. There are also plenty of women among royal alchemists. As Baker mentions in the historical note, merchants like Zilan’s family were a despised class, so Zilan wouldn’t stand a chance of participating in the exam on that ground solely, let alone her being a woman.
Closer to the end, the stakes definitely grew higher, and there were a few moments I thought Baker might go George R.R. Martin’s way. Part of the final confrontation felt a bit too protracted, but it offered a few interesting twists. They definitely livened the narrative; however, as a result, I had a feeling that the magical/alchemical system of rules in the world wasn’t strict enough (at least for my taste).
All in all, The Scarlett Alchemist gives some Mulan vibes, though instead of protecting China from a big invading army, the protagonist fights the evil residing on the throne. In some ways, I also saw parallels to other YA retellings, for example, Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, despite a totally different setting. The Scarlett Alchemist is a story of finding and establishing oneself, discovering one’s essence and dealing with the past. It is a story of ambition. It is a story of family. It is a story of acceptance. This is the first novel in a duology, and it ends with a promise of new adventures that sound a little bit like a search for grail. So there is something to look forward to.