THE SCARLET ALCHEMIST, by Kylie Lee Baker, Inkyard Press; Original edition, Oct. 3, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (young adult, ages 14 and up)
A poor, biracial girl with the ability to raise the dead gets caught up in the dangerous political games of the royal family in The Scarlet Alchemist, by Kylie Lee Baker.
Zilan dreams of becoming a royal alchemist, of providing for her family by making alchemical gold and gems for the wealthy to eat in order to stay young forever. But for now, she’s trapped in her impoverished village in southern China, practicing an illegal form of alchemy to keep food on the table—resurrecting the dead, for a price.
When Zilan finally has the chance to complete her imperial exams, she ventures to the capital to compete against the best alchemists in the country in tasks she’ll be lucky to survive, let alone pass. On top of that, her reputation for raising the dead has followed her to the capital, and the Crown Prince himself seeks out her help, suspecting a coming assassination attempt.
The more Zilan succeeds in her alchemy, the more she gets caught in the dangerous political games of the royal family. There are monsters lurking within the palace walls, and it’s only a matter of time before they—and secrets of Zilan’s past—catch up with her. —Synopsis provided by Inkyard Press
The Scarlet Alchemist is a dark fantasy that grips you from its first grisly chapter all the way to the end. And make no mistake, if you are squeamish, this book may not be for you. It is full of blood and death and dark magic and resurrection and violence. But it’s also full of love and heart and the desire to do good.
Set in an alternate Tang Dynasty China, The Scarlet Alchemist follows Zilan, an orphan who has been raised as a daughter by her aunt and uncle. She’s a skilled alchemist who dreams of moving to the capital with her cousins where they’ll become royal scholars and she’ll become and royal alchemist.
Zilan is a strong young woman who — even though she knows good and evil must be balanced — doesn’t see the world in black and white. She doesn’t have that luxury. Every move is calculated and deliberate, always moving her forward. Zilan is bold and smart and flawed. Her imperfections make you want to know her better.
The supporting characters of Zilan’s cousins, the prince, the empress and other alchemists are somewhat fleshed out, but most are never fully realized. While the prince gets the closest, I would have liked to know more about the empress and her motivations.
Author Kylie Lee Baker is an excellent storyteller and worldbuilder. She seamlessly combines the two, never straying too far down the other’s path. Her writing is smooth and her ability to get into Zilan’s head is commendable.
The Scarlet Alchemist is the first book in a planned duology. I look forward to reading it’s sequel.
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