Alchemy, by Chris James, tells the tale of Jacob Silver, an orphaned child prodigy who is set the task of translating the recipe for an ancient potion promising the consumer immortality. Jacob’s story unfolds around his trial for the gruesome murder of a handful of women in Victorian London. It mixes scientific discovery with hints of the supernatural to weave a macabre tale.
Jacob is the son of a Jewish apothecary, raised in the family shop at Blackfriars on the banks of the Thames. Although he is a precocious and highly intelligent boy, his interest is in art rather than science. He admires the work of Leonardo da Vinci and is moved when his father takes him to view the Mona Lisa, on loan at the National Gallery, the day after his fifteenth birthday.
On his birthday an elderly gentleman had called unexpectedly at their home, presenting Jacob with the gift of an ancient book. The boy is delighted when he discovers sketches inside, apparently drawn by da Vinci. The book contains details of all manner of potions promising cures for ailments of the body and mind. It bears the title ‘Alchemy’.
Events unfold and Jacob is left orphaned. He is offered a scholarship at a school for the wealthy where he is granted individual tuition due to his advanced abilities. Science lessons take place in catacombs beneath the main school building, his tutor the man who presented him with his book. This professor is eager that Jacob should learn everything within its pages that he may unravel the mystery of a particular potion, written in a language or code that neither of them recognise, which promises resurrection and eternal life.
Jacob’s time at the school comes to an abrupt end when experimental medicines he provides for his peers have untoward side effects. He is sent away in disgrace, leaving the girl he has fallen in love with, Emily, unwell and disturbed.
Returning to the family shop in London he begins painting in order to earn money. He befriends poor women who will become the victims in the murder trial being narrated alongside the story of his life.
This brilliant young man, a talented artist, becomes addicted to drinks he concocts to fuel his creativity. Blighted by the drugs, and by the demands of the art buying public for erotica and then violence, his mind becomes skewed. When the professor reappears Jacob submits to his request to attempt to unravel the mysteries of the elixir of life.
I found the story far fetched but it was written with aplomb. The author name drops a great deal, which I found off-putting, but it did not overly detract. The erotic elements did not appeal, but the grim descriptions of boarding school, of life for the poor in London, and the concoction of the final potion, were impressively brutal and chilling.
Undercurrents throughout leave the reader unsure what in Jacob’s life is as he narrates. The denouement was satisfying, tying up the varied threads whilst allowing scope for a planned sequel. Despite reservations, which mainly centred around credibility, I was sufficiently drawn in to wish to read what happens next. What more need a book offer than that its reader remain eager to turn the next page.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.