Review: Death of an Alchemist by Mary Lawrence + Giveaway

Review: Death of an Alchemist by Mary Lawrence + GiveawayDeath of an Alchemist (Bianca Goddard Mysteries, #2) by Mary Lawrence
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Bianca Goddard #2
Pages: 304
Published by Kensington on January 26th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

In the mid sixteenth century, Henry VIII sits on the throne, and Bianca Goddard tends to the sick and suffering in London's slums, where disease can take a life as quickly as murder. . .
For years, alchemist Ferris Stannum has devoted himself to developing the Elixir of Life, the reputed serum of immortality. Having tested his remedy successfully on an animal, Stannum intends to send his alchemy journal to a colleague in Cairo for confirmation. Instead he is strangled in his bed and his journal is stolen.
As the daughter of an alchemist herself, Bianca is well acquainted with the mystical healing arts. As her husband, John, falls ill with the sweating sickness, she dares to hope Stannum's journal could contain the secret to his recovery. But first she must solve the alchemist's murder. As she ventures into a world of treachery and deceit, Stannum's death proves to be only the first in a series of murders--and Bianca's quest becomes a matter of life and death, not only for her husband, but for herself. . .

My Review:

Actually, the title should have been “Deaths of Several Alchemists”, but that doesn’t have nearly the same ring to it, does it?

And the story really does center around one particular alchemist’s death, even though the ripples from that death take down one more alchemist, and nearly kill chemiste Bianca Goddard as well. Not to mention a very unlikeable landlady, an alchemist’s daughter (not Bianca, obviously), a ne’er do well husband and a poor unfortunate bird.

Unknotting all the threads of this case while keeping herself alive and out of jail are all in a day’s work for Bianca. What makes the case potentially life-altering is the object that causes all the trouble – a formula for the elixir of life. Too many people want it. And too many people need it. But is it a good idea for anyone to have it?

Bianca’s husband John lies in a coma in their “rent”. Bianca believes that if she can manage to interpret the arcane formula and successfully brew the potion, neither of which is at all certain, she can save John’s life from the deadly “sweating sickness”. A disease that died out long before modern medical science could figure out what it was in the first place.

But she’s not the only one in dire need. So as Bianca races through London trying to secure ingredients and equipment, someone is chasing her and the precious formula. Is her mysterious stalker in search of fame and fortune, or is their need just as dire as Bianca’s?

And why are so many people dying of mysterious, or sometimes not so mysterious, causes in the wake of Bianca’s pursuit? Bianca puzzles over the medical conundrums she discovers even as she desperately searches for everything she needs to brew the potion. All the while worried that by the time she is ready to brew the elixir, the person she needs it for, the man she loves, will be beyond healing.

Bianca races against time, and against the dictates of her own conscience. If the elixir truly gives life everlasting, is it right to go against the natural order of things? There is one figure haunting London who has lived with the answer for far too long, and hopes that the elixir, and Bianca, hold the keys to his salvation.

Escape Rating A-: If churches are sometimes referred to as “smells and bells”, then the view of the English Renaissance in the Bianca Goddard series is all the smells, with no bells at all. The series takes place during the English Reformation, and the church bells are silent. But the author makes it clear to the reader that everything stinks, and those who can afford it wear masks or carry pomanders to keep the stink away from their own personal noses.

Bianca and her husband live in the middle of it all, near the Thames in Southwark. John complains all too frequently that he wants to move someplace that stinks a little less, and Bianca responds with the sensible statement that not only is this what they can afford, but that the surrounding stinks mask the stinks created by her brewing of medicinals. Which also stink.

alchemists daughter by mary lawrenceThis is, as I said in my review of the first book in this series, The Alchemist’s Daughter, life among the groundlings, where life is often nasty, frequently brutish, and generally all too short. This was a time when medicine all too frequently consisted of bloodletting and leeches, and no one knew what caused diseases or what cured them. Bianca’s brewing of medicinal potions and poultices works by observation – she sees what alleviates symptoms, and repeats the process, but the why was beyond her or anyone in the 16th century.

Bianca also applies alchemistry methods to her brewing. Her father is an alchemist, and a spiteful basty-assed nastard into the bargain. But the processes for reduction and sublimation work for medical herbs as well as whatever the next idea is to turn lead into gold.

So when Bianca needs a master to teach her better brewing methods, she is steered to Ferris Stannum, an elderly alchemist with an excellent reputation. She arrives just as he announces that he has managed to create an elixir of life, and has proven its efficacy by administering it to his formerly sick cat, who is now capering around the place in healthy feline glee.

His announcement is followed by a trail of death, as everyone who was in the vicinity of Stannum dies in mysterious circumstances, except for Bianca and the person who chases her all over London. Because someone drops the old alchemist’s formulary into Bianca’s house, and her pursuer will do anything to get it back. Including murder.

This is an absorbing historical mystery from what we would think of as an uncommon point of view. Bianca is an average person with above-average intelligence, getting by the best she can. In this series, we see life as she sees it, not as the nobles loftily prance over it all. Getting inside Bianca’s head is fascinating and often frightening. There is so much that we know that she can’t, and we feel for her every step of the way.


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Mary is giving away a 2-book set of the Bianca Goddard mysteries as part of this tour!

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5 thoughts on “Review: Death of an Alchemist by Mary Lawrence + Giveaway

  1. I enjoy historical mysteries, especially when they focus on everyday humans, rather than kings, queens, you name it. This sounds like an intriguing read.

  2. I really love historical/period mysteries and this series sounds wonderful. The prices are a bit steep for this cheapskate, so I’ve put them on my wish list. I may also have to check with the library. Too good to miss.

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