The Scarlet Alchemist
by Kylie Lee Baker
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Pub Date 03 Oct 2023 | Archive Date 03 Oct 2023
"Visceral to the core." —Chloe Gong, New York Times bestselling author of These Violent Delights
New from the author of The Keeper of Night comes a YA fantasy duology set in an alternate Tang Dynasty China, where a poor biracial girl with the ability to raise the dead gets caught up in the dangerous political games of the royal family.
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.
Don’t miss the Keeper of Night duology!
The Keeper of Night
The Empress of Time
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 164 members
This book shattered me and then put me back together in duck shaped pieces. From top to bottom, I cannot stress how brilliant is. Vibrant worldbuilding, incredible writing, and characters that nestled in close to my heart and haven't left (I want to give all of them a hug so bad).
It's full of rage and full of heart, and damn does it deliver in blood, loss, and enduring love.
An incredible read, featuring dark magic, an engrossing plot, a strong lead, and a genuinely terrifying villain.
The Chinese novel plot line of "get summoned to the palace to compete for stuff" plot is so SO delicious to me, and I was delighted to see the author's notes even touch on the historical roots of this plot. And while the fact that it's one of my favorite tropes certainly didn't hurt, this book is also just very good. The narrative skips right over asking if we "should" raise the dead and leaps straight into the cost. The consequences are quiet at first, ramping up into a terrifying fallout and a high adrenaline ending that had me screaming. Zilan is firey, powerful, and often out of her depth. Her determination mixed with insecurity is palpable, and oftentimes utterly relatable. And the villain! WOW! It's rare to find one so clever and coldly terrifying. I'm breathless. That ending's going to be stuck in my head for a while, and I am counting down the days until the next book.
Zilan has always dreamed of becoming a royal alchemist. However, coming from rural southern China no one expects her to succeed. By day, she helps her aunt and uncle in their store and by night she performs resurrections with the help of her cousins. Until one day, the Crown Prince catches wind of her abilities and begs her to resurrect him. For now at least he is very much alive but something more sinister is happening beyond the palace walls.
I’m going to need Baker to come pick my jaw up off the floor and put my heart back together again. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an author so ruthless and so willing to do what it takes to create an absolutely vivid and imaginative story. My best advice going into this... don’t get attached to anything, any idea or anyone. Because this story is twisty. Everything you think you know will be challenged as Baker takes you on a ride to save the empire from what might just be my favourite villain in recent memory.
She manages to create a world loosely based on historical Chinese culture and a figure, that a reader can really get a sense of values and culture without it being overly bogged down in details. To me it’s a sign of great writing when there is so much to be inferred from interactions, character’s choices and supporting character’s reactions. The world though is brutal and to survive in it you must develop a thick skin and a bit of ruthlessness. Or do you? Because Baker also shows you how much kindness can make a difference. She shows us that sacrifices are often hidden where you least expect them.
There’s a bit of romance woven throughout the story but by no means is it the main focus point. Baker also takes us through an exploration of familial love and acceptance.
Zilan reminds me a lot of Ren from the Keeper of the Night duology (which was a fantastic series!) in the sense that both are little hedgehogs (prickly on the outside with a heart of gold once they become familiar with you). Both characters are a product of what they had to become in order to endure the ridicule in their societies for being of mixed race, an experience shared by the author according to her author’s note. So it makes me wonder just how much Zilan and Ren are like Baker herself.
Thank you to Inkyard Press & NetGalley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.