The Imperial Alchemist by A.H. Wang is an #OwnVoices Chinese historical thriller that alternates between two time periods. In 210 B.C.E. China, we follow the country’s most powerful emperor and his search for the elixir of life while his existence dangles on the brink of death. In the present era, we get acquainted with renowned archaeologist, Georgia Lee, who is on the hunt for a mysterious man that holds the answers to the greatest discovery in human history. Her pursuit shall take her from ancient Chinese tombs to the streets of traditional Japan and eventually to the lush mountains of Taiwan. The more she unravels, the more she realises that she’s in terrible danger.
I love historical adventure books and that’s essentially what this was for the most part, but with some thriller traits tossed in for good measure. It reminded me a bit of James Rollins’ books but with deeper exploration of cultures without being offensive or appropriative, and it also had some excellent scenery and environments to really encapsulate the reader in an exploratory bubble. I also greatly appreciated the inclusion of personal tragedies that were unrelated to the overarching quest because I felt it gave the protagonist more dimension and something for the readers to either empathise with.
The history and mythology that is used to build the foundation for the mystery and the legendary artefact was superbly rich, particularly with respect to various Chinese dynasties, such as the Tang and the Qing dynasties, which were some of my favourite parts of Chinese history to study upon. The wealth and fortune that was accumulated, especially with regard to discoveries and inventions is quite impressive, and they still impact the world in various ways today. I believe the author did a fantastic job of correlating the prehistoric qualities into a modern era.
The writing and descriptions of the scenery and the settings were pretty straightforward, which I appreciated. Sometimes with adventure books, especially ones that are fast-paced or intertwined with thriller genre dynamics, heavier and more flowery descriptives can make the story feel clunky and harsh, as well as quite tedious. Some of the cities and ruins were a bit too detailed, however it wasn’t something that was consistently prominent, so it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the story nor the escapism of following the characters to China, Taiwan, Japan, and a few other places.
The interpersonal relationship that Georgia had were things that interested me; however, they weren’t really built upon too much. I feel like we received minute information on her parents, ex-husband, and colleagues—just enough to give as an idea of her personality and demeanour, yet not enough to formulate any substantial association between her and them. With that being said, I did love her grandmother (amah) very much. I think that woman is so loving and caring and nurturing, and she was my favourite person in the whole damn story. Georgia’s love interest was weak and her interactions with him floundered between being unnatural, forced, and have spotty chemistry.
While there’s plenty of things to find pleasant in The Imperial Alchemist, there were also a few things that ultimately fell flat for me. The first is the predictability of the whole adventure. There was no fire or suspense to it and that prevented me from forming a genuine investment to the storytelling. It’s not until the last one-third of the story when a unique plot twist occurs that I was finally able to be caught off-guard, and that felt great! It was the main reason as to why I ended up finishing the book feeling more satisfied than I would have otherwise.
Another thing that bothered me were the walls of textual information. As much as I gobbled up all the history and lore on the Asian cultures that contributed to the adventure, my attention with consuming it wavered quite terribly. These walls of text aren’t fluidly woven into the storyline or plot, which created a disconnect between it and the narrative, sort of like putting oil and water together. They share a space, but they are still distinct and separate. This also may have contributed greatly to the lack of suspense and lessening the impact of the fast-paced, time-is-of-the-essence nature of the tale. Additionally, the motives that some of the cast members had for doing what they did were grossly predictable and eliminated the mystery that’s typically associated with thrillers.
Last but not least, Japanese honorifics were written incorrectly, and it drove me batty because of the confusion it was starting to cause. Typically, Japanese honorifics are translated into English as, for example, Tanaka-san. I italicised here to emphasise it, but there is small dash and then the honorific follows. It is not capitalised or written as a separate word. If I went to Japan and someone were to give me an honorific, it would be Neha-san, or Yon-chan. However, in The Imperial Alchemist, all the honorifics are written as Tanaka San. This is wrong. When it’s written this way, the San can be construed as being a surname rather than an honorific and can create a lot of confusion while reading it, particularly for folx who are unfamiliar with these things. There were other minor grammar discrepancies as well, but this was the more prevalent and most frustrating one for me. I did double-check this with my Japanese professors just to be sure that I got it right.
Overall, The Imperial Alchemist was a very good historical adventure novel that is written well with great use of history and cultural references. The basic premise behind the narrative was quite interesting and it definitely satisfied my desire to read an Asian action-adventure book. Nevertheless, it’s far from perfect with its predictability and grammar conflicts. If you don’t mind reading a tale that you may be able to sort out well before the finale, then I’d recommend that you give it a try, more so if you’re a fan of Asian cultures and legends. If a sequel is ever released for it, I will most definitely pick it up as I believe the author has a lot of promise to become quite great at writing for the genre one day.
3.75 caves outta 5!
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