Zoe Faust has lived for centuries as an alchemist, wandering the world to hide who she is. But since arriving in Portland and with her new housemate, Dorian the immortal living gargoyle, she’s starting to put down roots, make friends and even a family.
But one of the cornerstones of her wandering is that her old friend and mentor, the alchemist Nicholas Flamel, abandoned her. Now she learns he may have been imprisoned over the centuries - centuries waiting for her to rescue him. She has to act, even under the shadow of a suspicious death and through some very shady art dealing
This series probably epitomises “cozy mystery”. It’s not action packed. It’s not full of death defying feats and we don’t even have a huge amount of scary tension - albeit still with a few to maintain the stakes and not remove from the fact it is a murder mystery
That’s not because it’s boring - far from it - but because it’s story doesn’t rest on blood fizzing and massive drama even while we still have carefully maintained threads. It’s not a book that nails you to your seat, but it is a book you can coil up in your seat and relax
I really like how Zoe and co manage to be pulled into the murders of this series. A lot of the time with cozy mysteries it’s a little weird how we get these protagonists involved in the mystery - and why the police even tolerate their presence - or why they don’t mind their own business, especially when Zoe has such a big secret to keep - her immortality and, therefore, fraudulent identity.
But by linking the murders to Alchemy and, more importantly, giving the characters a mystery that is more relevant to them (the abduction of the famed Alchemist, Nicholas Flamel) we get a lot more personalised motive to actually get involved in the mystery. At times it seems odd compared to the rest of the genre - because there’s a murder and Zoe & co all seem far more interested finding a painting which may lead them to Nicholas than they are about the dead man. It almost feels callous - until you remember just how ridiculous it is for the man in the street to decide to just muscle their way into a police investigation (especially lacking appropriate investigative skills despite Dorian’s enthusiasm). Instead they involve themselves where they should be and where they are the most invested and where they have the relevant skills
Zoe and Tobias struggle with protecting their secret identities and have a very good reason to avoid police scrutiny with them being decades or hundreds of years old and Tobias’s identity definitely frays around the edges. This book also follows on the previous two books of Zoe trying to put down roots, make friends and have an actual home. We saw this building over the last two books and this time it grows further - but Tobias is a walking warning as to how hard that can be, newly bereaved after the death of his wife, grieving but having to desperately do so in secret or at least hiding the identity of who his elderly wife was. Zoe herself is opening her life considerably - with old friends coming back, with Tobias present and with her secret being known by more people, Zoe’s life is changing a lot. But how much in her control and how much safely is still to be seen. Zoe is definitely launching into a very uncertain future.
I do like how the age of these characters factors in - we have Zoe’s suspicion, inability to necessarily connect with modern technology along with her many memories that interspace the story. We have Tobias and his history as an escaped slave and the scars he still lives with. Even subtle elements like Dorian not accepting the idea that a teenager is a child and shouldn’t be treated as an adult or assume the dangers as an adult. We also have some really interesting flashbacks which address alchemy, art - but also class and gender as well.
This all combines with some really beautiful writing about art (which I found fascinating despite my general disinterest in art) and a general artful pacing which managed to not be full of action and tension but is still compelling and interesting and fun to follow.
Tobias is a Black man as well as Zoe’s old friend and fellow Alchemist with different skills. What I like especially is not only is he a prominent Black character and a clear and valued friend of Zoe’s but he also doesn’t always follow her lead, will sometimes do his own thing and will often not feel the need to consult or otherwise work with Zoe when pursuing his own leads. We also have more expansion of Max’s role, Zoe’s boyfriend and an Asian man, including his very excellent mother and sister. What is less ideal is that these two women actually feel far more fleshed out than Max himself. I get that Max loves Zoe… I get that Zoe loves Max and I get that Max is moderate sceptical when it comes to the supernatural. But that’s kind of all I know about him and it feels like he’s still a blank slate. I feel more connected to the new female detective who teamed up with Zoe and was more than a little awesome.
There are no LGBTQ characters
This series continues to be fun. It’s an amusing read with great characters and a really original concept - from the sentient gargoyle to the very idea of basing the series on alchemy. Having a supernatural system with very little in the way of overt magic but a more subtle low key use of power - and on the third book we are opening up new directions of investigating, widening the series which I think is very necessary when a book series begins to develop. I look forward to see where this develops from here. I’m still following this series and enjoying it immensely