Review: Dark Alchemy by Laura Bickle

Dark AlchemyDark Alchemy by Laura Bickle

Genre: URBAN FANTASY, WESTERN

Publisher: Harper Voyager Impulse on March 24, 2015

Source: Publisher via Edelweiss

My thanks to Harper Voyager Impulse and Edelweiss for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.

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Geologist Petra Dee arrives in Wyoming looking for clues to her father’s disappearance years before. What she finds instead is Temperance, a dying Western town with a gold rush past and a meth-infested present. But under the town’s dust and quiet, an old power is shifting. When bodies start turning up – desiccated and twisted skeletons that Petra can’t scientifically explain – her investigations land her in the middle of a covert war between the town’s most powerful interests. Petra’s father wasn’t the only one searching for the alchemical secrets of Temperance, and those still looking are now ready to kill. Armed with nothing but shaky alliances, a pair of antique guns, and a relic she doesn’t understand, the only thing Petra knows for sure is that she and her coyote sidekick are going to have to move fast, or die next.

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Prepare for some serious creepiness and an unbelievable number of shoot-outs, because DARK ALCHEMY is not your typical urban fantasy: this is UF meets the Wild West. Protagonist Petra Dee flees rolls into Temperance, Wyoming intending to put the tragedy and violence of her past behind her. Unfortunately for Petra, the former gold rush town isn’t exactly the safest place for someone with a nose for trouble.

Petra is a scientist and completely uninterested in things that cannot be seen and measured. New Age spirituality, the supernatural, and what I personally like to call “juju” are all bogus, as far as she’s concerned. So when a series of strange and unexplainable incidents occur shortly after her arrival in Temperance, Petra is understandably thrown. In the “weird supernatural occurrences” column we have: a coyote who follows Petra around like a highly intelligent domesticated animal, a man who can be beaten within an inch of his life without any visible evidence of it the next day, and the discovery of horribly twisted human remains. Add to that a run in with the local meth heads and Petra’s stay in Temperance is shaping up to be a grand ol’ time.

Petra is tough, smart, and resourceful – all character traits that I admire in a UF protagonist. In one particularly “do or die” scene, she pulls a MacGyver and assembles a flamethrower from the body of a vacuum, a seat belt, and a bird’s nest. I mean…hell yes! It didn’t even require that much suspension of disbelief because Petra pulls together a few makeshift tools of necessity throughout DARK ALCHEMY, including a crude spectrometer. Her technical know-how and scientific background definitely came in handy going up against the majorly creepy baddies running amok in Temperance.

Sal Rutherford works his ranch hands into the ground and exploits their otherworldly abilities in an effort to maintain his iron grip on Temperance. He has law enforcement in his back pocket and has intimidated half the town into thinking they have no choice but to submit to his dictatorial rule. The other half of the town worships at the altar (figuratively) of a shady figure known as the Alchemist, the local drug kingpin. But as Petra soon finds out, the Alchemist is cooking up a lot more than meth…

Laura Bickle impressed me with her ability to write convincing and multi-faceted characters while still maintaining a good deal of plot. Temperance abuts a Native American reservation and tensions between the two populations are pretty evident. Petra gets a front-row seat to the conflict when she befriends Maria Yellowrose, a tough as nails social worker, and by extension her uncle Frankie. Frankie is infamous for being a boisterous alcoholic who’s convinced that he has shamanistic powers.

I will say that one character seemed completely out of place and somewhat useless: the overbearing and somewhat chauvinistic Park Ranger, Mike. This guy seemed to show up everywhere – especially when he wasn’t wanted – and was clearly trying to get with Petra despite her obvious disinterest. His repeated offers that she move out of her trailer and into the lodge in the national park came off a bit weird in a “women living alone are unsafe so why don’t you come live closer to me, a complete stranger who’s large, physically fit, and sexually attracted to you” kind of way. Call me paranoid (fair point) but that just doesn’t add up. I was relieved when Petra steered clear of Mike in favour of a much more appealing romantic interest.

The other thing that bothered me about this one was the treatment of guns and gun violence. I realize that DARK ALCHEMY is an urban fantasy/western mash-up, but personally I found people’s attitudes towards guns to be too cavalier. Obviously there’s a lot of tussling and violence in urban fantasy, but it’s not often done with guns and when it is there’s usually a more serious tone. Maybe if I read more westerns I’ll get used to it – there does seem to be an awful lot of western SFF releasing over the next year!

Despite some quibbles, I quite enjoyed DARK ALCHEMY and Bickle’s quick pacing impressed me. This book has an open ending that leaves room for a sequel; if there is one in the works, then sign me up!

If you’ve read DARK ALCHEMY, who did you think was a more convincing villain: Sal Rutherford or the Alchemist? If you haven’t, what do you make of all these SFF westerns being released this year?

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  • “I will say that one character seemed completely out of place and somewhat useless: the overbearing and somewhat chauvinistic Park Ranger, Mike.”<—–THIS. And yes, I lowered my rating by half a star for referring to a gun as a toy. It was creeptastic though, and Frankie was awesome 😉 Great review, Danya!

    • I just didn’t understand Mike’s purpose at all! Although it was pretty fun to watch the awkward exchange between Petra and Maria re: Mike, hehe. Frankie was the best! I would definitely read a book about him.

  • I picked up this one when it came out because the price was right. I didn’t know some of the finer details of it though, but you had me at UF meets wild west! The cavalier way people treat firearms does sound like it could be the product of the “Western” part of the equation though, I’ll just have to see for myself if I ever get the chance to check this out. I love how it’s tagged “dark” and “creepy” though, sounds like my kind of UF 🙂

    ~Mogsy

    • Yeah, I have a feeling you’ll like this one! 🙂 It’s very much up your alley – grittier UF with some seriously whack juju. Very original and one hundred percent creepy, haha!

  • This sounds interesting though your warning about creepiness is putting me off (seriously, I can’t watch/read anything remotely creepy without stressing myself out completely – it took me a year before I caved and watched the first Twilight movie (I hadn’t read the books before) because I thought the trailer looked scary).
    Guns – America, right? It’s completely unthinkable for me that people can actually own guns and store them in their closet or nightstand drawer or whatever because where I live, you have a gun if you’re a) a cop; b) a criminal; c) possibly a hunter. That’s it.
    Great review 🙂

    • Not gonna lie Kaja…I was pretty unsettled by some of the stuff in this one! You might want to steer clear – or read it outside on a sunny day, haha. I don’t know what it is about guns, but their presence in UF wigs me out sometimes. I can deal with violence from swords, magic, and supernatural abilities, but guns are just too real I guess. I agree, very few people I know have guns – but there are a LOT of hunters in certain parts of Canada, so you do hear about them from time to time.

      • Heh, ok, I’ll skip this one, then. I still have those Kelley Armstrong novels to get to! 🙂
        Reading outside on a sunny day – I wish it helped but memory is a shitty thing sometimes and so is imagination, they function perfectly when you need them the least.

  • I was going to say that Mike seems to be very unpopular and then I see Jessica already chimed in with that.

  • Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    Interesting. I don’t know if I have read a book where a character just feels out of place, and seeing agreement in the comments. It just makes me so curious!

    • Yeah, I can’t really explain it. He was kind of like a red herring character…that ultimately served no purpose. Maybe if there’s a sequel we’ll figure out his role!

  • Lynn Williams

    Strangely intriguing – not sure about the creepy guy – buy urban fantasy western definitely appeals.
    Lynn 😀

    • Right? I wasn’t sure how to feel about that UF/Western mash-up but I quite enjoyed it! I’ve been seeing quite a few Western fantasies popping up on publisher’s catalogs for 2015 so keep your eye peeled!