(Disclaimer: I was given a complementary copy of the kindle edition for review purposes.)
As a long time roleplayer (of the Dungeons & Dragons variety rather than computer gaming) I was brought up with the understanding that all good quests begin with a group of adventurers being approached by a stranger in a pub with the offer of a reward in return for their service. The Alchemist’s Apprentice begins in a similar fashion with William Pilling coming upon Belinda Stobbard, wife of the late Sir Francis Stobbard, who is in ‘The Throttled Pig’ seeking help. In exchange for coin would he drive a cart and escort her on a journey north? As with all good quests, nothing is quite as it seems, and complications are a plenty. As you might have worked out from the names, this is not set in your traditional quasi-medieval setting for fantasy quests; instead it is set in England during the civil war.It is the story of the coming together of a disparate bunch of characters on a journey to discover the fate of a casualty in the strife, exploring on the way their different motives and beliefs.
The Alchemist’s Revenge is a highly enjoyable romp of a book. It was a quick read, and, to use the oft used cliche but here appropriate, ‘un-put-downable’. The story was fun in its own right, if not overly complex or literary, but the real hero of the piece is without a doubt the setting which I found to be rich in shade and detail. Alongside the basic twists and turns of the plot, you have the additional tension introduced by the various layers of factions and faiths of that time. There are the Royalists and Parliamentarians, the political factions, and the religious divide of Catholic and Protestant. Each of these have their extremists too, driven by their beliefs to desperate measures. Then you have the likes of The Diggers, people seeking a new way of life, tired by the strife that their world has become stuck in. Not all are driven by doctrine and philosophy though, as always there are those whose motivation is greed and wealth. What a wonderful backdrop this setting provides! I can’t help but wonder why more have not exploited it.
This rich context is not enough to satisfy Cakebread, however. Applying a dash of the fantastical he whips up an alternative take on real life. No longer are the combatants armed with merely swords and blackpowder weapons, but the Royalists call upon the power of their philosophers’ stones to summon elementals and other magick, and the Parliamentarians harness the discoveries of science and engineering to devise clockwork automata and warmachines. With these dreadful weapons unleashed against each other the country stands reeling from the bloodshed and in an uneasy state of stalemate. There is so much to intrigue and spark the imagination and plenty hinted at and laid down for future volumes of ‘Companie of Relutant Heroes’ series to explore. I for one will look forward to these works as I can’t help but feel this book only scratches the surface of Peter Cakebread’s creation.
Of course, if like me you are a keen roleplayer, you will be pleased to discover at the back of the book that it is based upon another work by Peter Cakebread along with Ken Walton, the roleplaying game ‘Clockwork and Chivalry’ (C&C). I wish I had read the book before first playing the game as it brilliantly brings it to life. Having read the book I am now better able to grock the setting and what it is capable of. I would recommend it to any players of C&C. Equally, if you can’t wait for the next book, grab some dice and a copy of C&C and make up your own tales in this wonderfully original world.
I’ve awarded this 4 out of 5 stars. If I could I’d have given it 4.5. In the copy I was sent there were a few little typos, and the basic plot is of itself not highly original nor demanding, but the delightful setting by far compensates for this. Wonderful!