The Imperial Alchemist
By A.H. Wang
BW Press, 2018
Thousands of years ago, Emperor Qin of China sent out an expedition in search of the elixir of life. Now, professor of archaeology Dr. Georgia Lee has been given the opportunity to pick up where that lost expedition left off. By tracing the clues across East Asia, she hopes to make a few new discoveries about a world-shaping period of Chinese history and perhaps secure the funding to save her research department, but before long, she finds herself chasing the secrets of her own past and of human mortality itself.
Although certainly not an outlier in the thriller genre, I’d describe The Imperial Alchemist as plot-driven to a mild fault. The prose is utilitarian, invisible except for the occasional peculiar word choice (I’m not sure I was supposed to laugh when a character being imprisoned, drugged, and interrogated in a remote basement lair described her mood as “hangry”), and much of the characterization feels paint-by-numbers. Grandmothers are doting and traditional, couples with dead children can’t bear the sight of each other, power-hungry tycoons have abusive alcoholic daddies, and gay administrative assistants say “fabulous” a lot.
The archetypal characterization does not extend to Georgia’s gender. She’s an archaeologist, she’s the hero of a globetrotting mystery adventure, and she happens to be a woman. That’s pretty much that.
And as a globetrotting mystery adventure, The Imperial Alchemist is not only fast-paced but wonderfully flavorful. Throughout Georgia’s travels, the local history and mythology act more as her costars than her backdrop, vividly interweaving with each other and with the story, allowing the reader to experience not only her sightseeing opportunities but her blurring perception of reality and fantasy.
Wang’s knowledge and passion for research are on prominent display from beginning to end, adding depth to the world without ever bogging down the story. The doses of reality aren't all pretty travel ads and grade school history crafts, either. Some of the glimpses of the past are gut-turning in a completely different way from the expected car chases and shootouts of a race for the elixir of life, and the truth of what happened millennia ago remains as complicated and subjective as a current events debate in any living time and place.
Fans of James Rollins and anyone who loves Lara Croft but wishes she were a better archaeologist should definitely check this one out.
Want more Fiona J.R. Titchenell? Subscribe here for personalized updates on new books, discounts, giveaways, and more. You can also join me on Facebook and Twitter, or (best of all) become a patron to gain access to exclusive extras!