The Alchemists of Loom
Published January 2017
From Goodreads: Her vengeance. His vision.
Ari lost everything she once loved when the Five Guilds’ resistance fell to the Dragon King. Now, she uses her unparalleled gift for clockwork machinery in tandem with notoriously unscrupulous morals to contribute to a thriving underground organ market. There isn’t a place on Loom that is secure from the engineer turned thief, and her magical talents are sold to the highest bidder as long as the job defies their Dragon oppressors.
Cvareh would do anything to see his sister usurp the Dragon King and sit on the throne. His family’s house has endured the shame of being the lowest rung in the Dragons’ society for far too long. The Alchemist Guild, down on Loom, may just hold the key to putting his kin in power, if Cvareh can get to them before the Dragon King’s assassins.
When Ari stumbles upon a wounded Cvareh, she sees an opportunity to slaughter an enemy and make a profit off his corpse. But the Dragon sees an opportunity to navigate Loom with the best person to get him where he wants to go.
He offers her the one thing Ari can’t refuse: A wish of her greatest desire, if she brings him to the Alchemists of Loom.
I read less fantasy than I used to, in part because it seems like so many writers focus on either the epic fantasy series or on the world’s magic system these days. If they focus on the magic, then it seems like the magic is the important part of the story and you have to read through a long explanation about how the magic works and then see the rules in action so you know that it’s a Big Deal when the main character becomes so skilled that they can break the rules and accomplish amazing things. Because of course they can.
That’s all well and good, but I read for characters and not the gee-whiz things they can do. If I have to read through page after page of the magical equivalent of stereo instructions, I am not a happy reader.
So while I approach new fantasy with some trepidation these days, I had been hearing wonderful things about Elise Kova’s The Alchemists of Loom (though, I hear wonderful things about Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass books, and we all know what I think of that), so I decided to give it a try.
The audiobook version was available through the Hoopla app, so I downloaded it and started listening.
It begins with an action sequence. Ari has been hired to steal a set of chemicals from the alchemists and while it’s difficult, she’s planned everything down to the last detail. Her escape is complicated by the sudden appearance of a wounded Dragon, Cvareh, blocking her path. They fight, but his pursuers force them to temporarily abandon their enmity and they flee together, joining back up with Ari’s assistant, Florence. This partnership leads them down a road that none of them could have anticipated.
Although…. An astute reader certainly can anticipate what’s going to happen.
Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed The Alchemists of Loom. It’s a fantasy set in a steampunk universe where magic mixes with mechanics on a dual-layer world (Loom exists on the solid, rocky ground below the clouds, Nova exists on the world above the clouds) peopled by two different races that are just non-human enough to be strange. It only takes a few lines here and there for Kova to show the extreme differences between the two races, and how they also need each other. This is the same way that she explains the magical systems- a bit at a time unless the story demands a deeper explanation, which is presented as part of the story and without assuming the reader is an idiot. Details are built up bit by bit until the whole world is constructed, providing a picture of a vibrant world populated by more than just the story’s heroes and villains.
The characters, too, are finely drawn. Their personalities and histories are built up the same way that the world is- piece by piece until you feel like you’ve known them for a long time. It’s just like how you get to know people in real life, with a story here and a joke there, not with massive information dumps or flashbacks. I could believe in these characters, and their motivations and actions made sense. I knew why Cvareh made that stupid decision in the station– it stemmed from his upbringing and his culture. And I could understand Ari and Florence’s reactions to Cvareh’s stupid decision. It was a pivotal point in the plot, but it flowed from Cvareh’s characteristics, not from the author’s need to move the story in a particular direction.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. The plot itself is not revolutionary and is a bit predictable at times, but the world and its characters are interesting, and Kova’s writing is solid- lyrical when it needs to be, and spare when that is called for.
With that all said, there were some things that irritated me:
- What’s with the characters’ names? On one hand, you have strange new names like Cvareh, and on the other, you have names like Florence. You might think that the cloud-based Novan characters like Cvareh have the exotic names, but no. One of the baddies is named Leona (a name I associate with grannies knitting doggie sweaters), and his sister is named Petra (a name I associate with a barista from the coffee shop I frequented in Ireland). It wasn’t enough to make me stop listening, but it did make me go, “what’s with the naming scheme?”
- I really could have done without Leona’s chapters. I understand why they’re there. Without them, the reader won’t understand what kind of a badass Leona is and what that means for our trio of heroes, or how she manages to figure out where Cvareh is probably going. It would feel like Kova was using a deus ex machina ploy if Leona just up and showed up without her chapters, but… I wish I could have skipped them. She grated on my nerves for multiple reasons.
- Toward the end, there was entirely too much navel-gazing. Throughout the book, there’s a lot of action. And then it hits a wall and the action stops. After that, they spend a bunch of time pondering things without sitting down and talking it out. Like, yeah, I get it. Ari and Florence have made realizations, but I could have done without all the time that was spent on those realizations. I think part of what bugged me about that is that through the rest of the book, Kova wrote like she respected her audience’s intelligence and ability to figure things out, while in the navel-gazing scenes, she felt it necessary to spell things out.
- Ari has secrets. A lot of secrets. And there are a lot of hints dropped about these secrets throughout the story. So when the end of the book approaches, Kova reveals some of these secrets. But not all of them. Sometimes she just drops bombshells that are meant to get the reader to read the second book. I don’t care for that approach. If the reader has made it through 80-90% of book one, then you can probably count on them to read book two. There’s no need to hold back in the first book, when there will be plenty of fallout from those secrets to keep the characters busy in book two. Dropping bombshells you intend to resolve in the next book is a crappy literary device. Don’t do it.
With all that said, I will probably read the next book in the series, The Dragons of Nova, though I think I will stick with the physical book, rather than the audiobook if only so I can skim chapters with characters who drive me batty.
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