The Alchemist's Daughter

by Eileen Kernaghan
ISBN: 1894345797

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A Review of: The AlchemistĘs Daughter
by Olga Stein

Eileen Kernaghan, author of The Snow Queen and The Sarsen Witch, among other books, and winner of numerous literary awards, believes in a diet of language saturated with beautiful, image-rich, poetic descriptions. Here is one gorgeous passage depicting her heroine, Sidonie Quince's arrival at Hampton Court for an audience with Queen Elizabeth.

"The brick walls of Hampton Court Palace, rising before them, were deep crimson where the sunlight struck them, plum-coloured in shadow, patterned with chequered lines of burnt-black. Sidonie craned her neck this way and that, gazing at turrets and gilded pinnacles, mullioned windows, embrasured parapets."

That such a superb diet is intended for young adult readers is all the more laudable, and the merits of this book don't end there. Labeled fantasy', The Alchemist's Daughter is actually a tale of adventure arranged in a historical setting. It's 1587, and there is England's impending war with Spain, the 50-year-old Queen Elizabeth's reluctance to enter a bloody and costly conflict, and her court ministers' premonitory awareness of the shortage of gold in the royal coffers-an indispensible means of financing a defensive campaign against the Spanish fleet. There is no magic, unless one equates it with fifteen-year-old Sidonie's unreliable psychic abilities. She can look into a crystal ball and occasionally "scry" some sign of what's to come. That is why she is summoned by the Queen, and that is how her alchemist father, Simon, gets in the kind of trouble only Sidonie can rescue him from. Believing, as many in that age still did, that he is able identify the chemical ingredient that will transform base medal into gold, Simon Quince is unwittingly drawn into backroom court intrigue and naively promises to make' gold to help with Elizabeth's war-time needs. Sidonie, already more sensible than her father, quickly sees that such a promise will cost Simon his life, for success is unlikely unless the elusive ingredient, "the elixir of transmutation", really exists and she is able to locate it.
Sidonie is a girl one would enjoy befriending. She's clear-headed, brave, and intelligent. She reads Euclid for pleasure, finding the "abstract world of numbers safe and reassuring." For mathematics, she knows, "one needed no magical talismans, no esoteric wisdom to unlock its secrets, only the application of a logical and exacting mind." And she's determined. She risks her father's ire and travels without his permission to the distant, ruined Glastonbury Abbey, accompanied only by her doting neighbour, Kit, in order to bring back some of the powder she's convinced is the elixir the famous Paracelsus described in his writings. Trouble starts for Sidonie and Kit on the way back home, when they are tricked into offering another traveler assistance. Sidonie's pouch with the "elixir" is stolen and Kit sustains a blow to the head.
With the aid of some new-found friends, Sidonie procures the gold after all, though not in the way she had intended at first, and, in an exciting finale, she saves Elizabeth from being poisoned. England goes on to win the war against Spain, but that's history. Meantime, another lovely passage describing a celebration at the palace is worth reproducing here for the colour and fanfare it depicts with language that's easily relished.

"Kit and Sidonie wove their way through the chattering, jostling throng. The ladies' gowns were a vivid tapestry of emerald, ruby red and buttercup, topaz and violet and damson. . . .What coxcombs the gentlemen were, she decided, in their starched white ruffs, their fashionably slashed and pinked and scissored doublets, their puffed sleeves and padded trunkhose; and the ladies of the court, in their damask and Cathay silk and velvet, their Spanish farthingales and glittering ornaments and ostrich feather fans, made her feel like a milkmaid who had crept in uninvited to the ball."

This book can be recommended to students by teachers and librarians. It's appropriate for the same age group that read (and probably still does) G. Trease's Cue for Treason. That is a book I enjoyed in my early teens and still remember with fondness for its historical backdrop, exciting plot, and the integration of the theatrical life in the age of Shakespeare into the story. The Alchemist's Apprentice is a shorter book and doesn't cover nearly as much political-historical ground, but it offers high quality reading for youngsters. Shakespeare has a cameo here too. If I could suggest any kind of improvement, it would be to say that the book should have been longer, with the adventure extended over another fifty pages, and then it really could have become a staple of the classroom.

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