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.
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.
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!