This was a preview copy from Netgalley, thank you. (This is actually quite an old review that never got here, somehow.)
I have a habit (bad? Maybe) of requesting advanced readers’ copies of books or such, downloading them in ebook format, and then forgetting everything their blurbs said about them. So it wasn’t until I opened the epub of The Alchemy of Desire that I realized that it was from Carina Press, which I afterward discovered is a sort of PNR subdivision of … Harlequin. Oh dear. I mean, yes, the title should be a dead giveaway that it’s a romance, but somehow it wasn’t (the man on the cover is fully clothed!) (I quite like the cover, actually), and I braced myself.
And the beginning was good. So good. It was an alternate-19th century urban fantasy set in New Orleans post-Civil War. And this was not Ken Burns’s Civil War; the main issue of the war seems to have been neither slavery nor states’ rights but a fight between those who can wield magic (Wielders) “the Confederacy“ and those who can’t and use steampunk machinery instead (Machinists): the Union. (The Machinists’ Union? Really? What local?) I loved the beginning. There was a lot of good stuff there, despite some typos I hope were corrected for a paper edition.
Then the story left New Orleans.
There was so much scope in that setup – it was deep and rife with possibility. I didn’t expect that. Finding it unexpectedly makes it even more of a shame that the possibilities were unexplored.
The two brothers at the heart of the story, Diah and Cager, are forced into going off to hunt the White Buffalo, and for this they need a guide. And the only guide willing to have them is Oni, a half-Lakota woman who is a bundle of secrets and Issues. She’s not taken terribly seriously, at least by the elder and more obnoxious of the two brothers, Cager, because she’s a woman and because she’s a half-breed. She’s an illegal, unlicensed Wielder (like Cager; Diah is an Alchemist – hence the title). She’s a shapeshifter. And she has no intention of taking them to kill the White Buffalo, because the White Buffalo is sacred to her tribe. Oh, and she killed a guy who tried to rape her, and begins almost at once to fall in love with the younger brother, Diah after an initial reaction which seems paranormal but is never explained.
(The brothers’ names are actually nicknames for Jebediah and Micajuh or some such, which is a stretch. I was pronouncing “Diah” as “dee-ah” in my head, because otherwise it’s somewhere between “die” and, I’m sorry, “diarrhea”, but if it’s short for Jebediah it probably is “die”. And “Cager” is just … odd.)
From the moment the trio of the two brothers and their Sacajawea set foot on a boat to begin their journey after the White Buffalo, the Harlequin roots begin to show. There is a great deal of teasing and frustration and timely – or untimely – interruptions, and bulges and pools of wetness. Unfortunately, the latter two items are verbatim; I began to wish for Oni’s sake that Depends had been invented in the 1860’s sometime.
There were parts of this that were a lot of fun. As I said, the setting and storyline of the beginning was dandy. The setting up of Alchemists/Machinists and Wielders is something I wanted more about. (Pity – it seems to be a standalone.) Once the focus moved west and to the R of PNR, it quickly became less interesting to me. I shouldn’t complain, because it does after all say on the tin that it is what it is, and what it is isn’t bad. But if this had been a steampunk Western with an integral romance instead of a Western romance with elements of steampunk it could have been something really special.