Alchemystic, by Anton Strout
This book had such potential; the idea is original and the sketch of the characters in the blurb seemed to indicate the possibility of something really interesting.
Unfortunately, when I attempted to read it, I loathed this book so much I couldn’t bear to finish it.
Usually, I will finish a book just so I can say I gave it every possible chance, just in case it improves drastically in the last four pages. Unfortunately, with Alchemystic, I decided that not only could it not possibly dig itself out of the depths in order to be even marginally tolerable without heavy engineering equipment, but I wasn’t willing to waste precious minutes of my life on a book that had absolutely no good points whatsoever.
Firstly, Lexi, the ‘heroine’. She’s twenty-two, and according to the blurb, she’s a ‘struggling artist’. According to the book itself, she’s a spoiled little rich girl who has a studio in her parents’ vast mansion and has been allowed to play at being an artist. There is no indication in the book that she has ever sold any artwork. She doesn’t even seem to know what medium she favours – everything from sculpture to pottery to charcoal drawing, apparently. She also thinks she’s far too good to accept advice from art teachers. And she fusses over getting clay on her clothes; tip: real people who work with clay do not throw clothes out just because they’ve got clay on them. They keep using the same clothes because who cares what you look like in the workshop, and why ruin more clothes?
When Lexi’s brother dies, Lexi’s parents finally insist that she does something useful (i.e., takes some notice of the family business) upon which she throws a tantrum but gives in with exceptionally poor grace. Throughout the novel, Lexi does not act like a twenty-two-year-old woman. She acts like a spoilt brat; if I had to put an age on her, I’d say sixteen – and needs a slap. When Stanis the gargoyle turns up, the way she treats him is appalling – she clearly thinks he is a mere thing, yet he has some measure of free will. But she doesn’t seem to see this, or think of the implications, and treats him as simply one more thing to which her position as heiress-of-loads-of-money entitles her.
Lexi’s friends are equally annoying. There’s the dance student who somehow has the time and inclination to skip classes and follow Lexi around. Then there’s the computer-geek type who has no visible means of support. Both of these characters, again, come across as about sixteen years old, rather than the adults in their early twenties that they are supposed to be. None of them seem to have any responsibilities or outside commitments.
OK, now let’s move on to plot.
Firstly, Lexi’s brother (who is apparently horrible, so we don’t have to feel any sympathy) gets buried by a collapsing building. Yet his hand – still clutching his mobile phone – is found outside the building. OK, so I didn’t read all the way through the book, but I still find it difficult to believe how this could happen.
Secondly, at one point Lexi is attacked, and, held from behind with a knife to her throat, manages to kick backwards with her Doc Martens, niftily getting her attacker in the jewels, and thereby managing to get away. Now, I challenge anyone to try this. I did, with my long-suffering husband. And unless Lexi is abnormally tall (or deformed), or her attacker is abnormally short (or deformed) this doesn’t work. The distance from knee-joint to groin is longer than the distance from knee-joint to foot. Plus, a certain amount of wriggling is necessary to get into position. In reality, Lexi would have had her throat slit. Pity she didn’t in the book.
On to the magic. Lexi’s grandfather was apparently a magic-user, and left his books etc cleverly hidden in his studio (which Lexi is now using) so that… well, I don’t know. It wasn’t really explained (as far as I read) why Lexi’s grandfather never handed down his skills to his descendants. However, it doesn’t matter because Lexi manages to figure out where he hid his stuff in about five minutes. Another five minutes, and she’s managed to make a spell work. His security spells are easily circumvented by Lexi, and by Marshall (the geek) because of his immense dungeons-and-dragons experience. Obviously Grandfather was a D&D fan, because he seems to have based all of his magic on it.
Note: can you prick your finger on an earring post? All the earrings I’ve ever seen have had blunt ends, presumably so that you don’t prick your finger on them.
Later on in the book, Rory (the dance student) apparently turns into some kind of ninja-fighter, because her training in dance means that she’s good at fighting. WTF? Believe me, dance training is not the same as fight training. Being good at one does not mean you are good at the other. The crucial difference being, your partner in the dance is working with you, and your opponent in a fight is working against you.
Then there’s the occasion when Lexi finds that some building contractors have been murdered in a building her family is renovating. Instead of calling the police, she directs the gargoyle to collapse the ceiling on them to make it look like an accident. OK, I’m British, so maybe I just don’t understand. Over here in the UK, we have this thing called ‘Health and Safety at Work’ which means that your boss is not allowed to put you in avoidable danger at work, and if, for example, a ceiling collapses and you get killed, your employer is going to have a lot of difficult questions to answer and maybe even get charged with corporate manslaughter. Obviously in America (or at least Strout’s America) it’s perfectly acceptable for innocent builders to get killed at work.
And there’s the jewels that seem to contain Stanis’ soul, that Lexi’s grandfather apparently removed from Stanis, for reasons Lexi doesn’t know. Yet, immediately she discovers this, she becomes determined to find them and put them back so that Stanis can ‘protect her’ better. She does not appear to consider that maybe her grandfather, by all accounts a powerful alchemyst, might have had a good reason for doing this, and if she’s going to reverse his decision, she really ought to find out the details of what might happen if she does. No thought of caution crosses her spoiled-me-me-me juvenile mind.
Other reviewers have also commented that, this being being written in the first person, and since some chapters are written from Lexi’s point of view and some from Stanis’, they found it difficult to remember who was ‘speaking’ at any point. I agree; both characters seem to have the same ‘voice’. Possibly it’s because all of the characters are kind of flat. Yes, I loathe Lexi to the point that I wanted an invisible demon to eat her face, but she’s still… flat. None of the characters seem to have any depth to them, or any real connections to other characters. Lexi didn’t like her brother, doesn’t seem to have any feelings of love or respect for her parents, and uses her friends shamelessly for her own ends. If she wasn’t so spoiled and childish, I’d call her a sociopath (although we are clearly supposed to like her; can’t imagine how or why). Except she just doesn’t have enough depth to be a sociopath; she’s just a generic spoilt rich brat. If she had a bit more depth, it would be easier to like her, or at least understand her. She doesn’t seem to have any deep feelings – she doesn’t get on with her parents, but doesn’t seem to feel anything deeper than annoyance with them. There’s no hint of hurt, or longing, or anything.
Likewise, Marshall and Rory: they don’t seem to have any concerns other than doing what Lexi wants. Even their ‘talents’ seem to fit the plot so well that they simply seem to be cardboard cut-outs introduced for Lexi’s benefit. They accept the existence of magic rather too easily, too; even people who play D&D generally recognise that magic is not real. Yet Rory and Marshall accept it with barely a murmur…
Thinking about it, this book lacks struggle. Everything comes rather too easily. Lexi doesn’t like her parents, but she doesn’t struggle against them or seem overly bothered by this. Her brother is killed, but she didn’t like him anyway, so she doesn’t really feel any grief. She finds her grandfather’s spell books almost as soon as she starts to search, and the magic works for her after only one or two false starts. There is no struggle to accept the existence of magic. There is no sense of overcoming challenges. There is no sense of personal growth.
All in all, this is the worst book I have read in ages. Flat, insipid, unattractive characters. Ininspiring plot, in places demonstrating that the author has not even bothered to do the most basic of research.
I have finally discovered a disadvantage to electronic books: you can’t burn them. Deleting isn’t nearly as satisfying.