Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Published: Faber&Faber Ltd, February 6th 2023
My Rating: 2/5 stars
“We’re all made of energy” Ash said quickly. “We all practice alchemy naturally, with every breath and every thought and emotion. To say that only a conveniently wealthy few can legally become alchemists is bullshit.”
I feel like I’ve cycled through all 5 stages of grief, before finally landing on acceptance that I didn’t like this book… With its great concept and a powerhouse of an author behind it, Infinity Alchemist was one of my most anticipated books of 2024, but the final result was something that I couldn’t enjoy, despite my best efforts…
Many of Callender’s strengths that made me love their contemporary work in the past are present here as well, but unfortunately, I just feel like their talent doesn’t translate too well to the cornerstones of the fantasy genre.
The story follows Ash, a 19-year-old trans-boy who works as an assistant groundskeeper at Lancaster, a magical academy where only the most elite are permitted to study Alchemy. Although Alchemy is innate in some individuals, its practice is highly regulated and only allowed with a license, making it impossible for the less-privileged of society to get a foothold in.
Ash, knowing his background will exclude him from a place at the academy, has been practicing alchemy in secret. When one day, he crossed paths with Ramsay, a talented apprentice with secrets of their own, the two join forces in a quest for a powerful alchemical text, known as The Book of Source. Their journey will change their lives, and potentially the future of alchemy forever.
What I loved:
Callender is know for their amazing LGBTQ+ writing, and the representation in Infinity Alchemist is just as good as you’d expect from them. We have a trans-male protagonist, a genderfluid protagonist (Ramsay, who changes gender-expression and pronouns on a chapter by chapter basis), and a polyamorous relationship that wonderfully subverts the tropes of the love triangle so overdone in YA-fantasy. All of these elements are just allowed to be present on page and are never made into a “big deal”, or larger message. I personally love that form of representation, and wish we’d have more of that. I do have to say that Ramsay’s changing of pronouns got in the way of readability in some chapters, and will bother some readers. There are instances where it can become confusing to have one of the characters change pronoun midway through a paragraph. Especially in the case of multiple male characters, it’s often not clear if the “he/him” the text refers to is aimed at Ramsay or other male characters. Personally, I felt it was an issue of the writing, not the pronouns themselves, but it’s worth a mention.
I also loved the discussion the book brought up about elitism and privilege in the context of academia. That, as well as the other messages about polarization, acceptance and more, were very powerful and resonated with me.
In a contemporary novel, a compelling cast and strong message might have been enough to carry a novel. That doesn’t work for a 400+ page piece of fantasy, which is where Infinity Alchemist takes a tumble.
What I didn’t love:
Carrying the novels ideas, is a very weak plot, hampered even further with glaring pacing issues. The story basically boils down to a McGuffin-chase, that stretches out too long and is ultimately wrapped up far too fast and easy to be satisfactory. I cannot stress these pacing issues enough. Without hyperbole, I wanted to DNF this book every single time I put it down for a break. I would’ve done so too, had this not been a review copy. I simply couldn’t get invested in the story, for multiple reasons; most prominently, the characters.
I’m okay with an unlikable or flawed main character, but I found Ash to be insufferable. He’s quick to anger, selfish and immature, which I can all excuse since he’s supposed to be a teenager. What I can’t excuse is his self-pitying and often hypocritical attitude towards those who he sees as “more privileged”. He demonizes the elite for thinking they’re better than others, whilst simultaneously kicking down at all the scholars for “being book-smart” and “only learning facts”, whilst his self-taught alchemy is “the real, practical thing”. On several occasions, he actually mocks Ramsay for studying for her tests and learning within the traditional education system, and it comes off as ignorant and disrespectful.
Your background should never exclude you from an education, but on the other hand “being self-taught” doesn’t put you above those who did receive an education. Your background also doesn’t exclude you from putting in the work, and the only examples the author provides us (unintentionally!) is Ash not doing that.
Granted, Ash does go through some character-development, but much of it happens past the 90% mark, and feels very sudden and unearned, lacking the proper build-up. The same goes for the (romantic) relationships; the characters don’t spend enough (page-)time together for me to believe their strong emotional connection, or be invested in them. It doesn’t help either that emotional beats (for example, a characters traumatic backstory) are consistently told, not shown.
Apart from the characters, the world wasn’t developed enough either for me to fully feel invested. We’re told that Alchemy has shaped society in many ways, but we never see it’s implications for the larger world outside the school-walls. We’re told that The Book of Source is almost akin to a Holy Grail, and yet we only encounter about a handful of alchemists looking for it… There’s mention of the many Houses, but none of them actually feel distinct or developed beyond a house-name…
The framework is there, but it needed so much more development to work. Which is a shame, considering the book already feels overly-long and bloated as is.
Overall, I really wanted to love this authors debut in the fantasy genre, but the quality simply wasn’t there for me. I highly recommend their contemporary works (King and the Dragonflies, Hurricane Child and Felix Ever After), but suggest you skip this one…
Many thanks to Faber & Faber for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
You can find this book here on Goodreads