This clever alternate history is one part intrigue, one part romance, one part family drama, and many parts compelling story!
Book: Scandalous Alchemy by Katy Moran
Publication date: 10th June 2021
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Head of Zeus. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: violence, injury and death; death of children; abandonment/removal of children; rape and sexual assault mentioned.
Clemency Arwenack never dreamed she would be appointed lady-in-waiting to the notorious Princess Royal. A soldier’s daughter, Clemency has aristocratic connections that she could quite frankly do without, and catering to the whims of an impetuous heir to the throne is the last thing she wants. Even so, Clemency’s ambitious godmother forces her to accept the position. Always a keeper of other people’s confidences, Clemency has a secret of her own, and Georgiana, Lady Boscobel, is only too ready to use it against her.
Worse still, the Honourable Lieutenant Colonel Kit Helford is now captain of the royal guard – and so Clemency can’t avoid the one childhood friend who might just see through her dangerous web of deceit. Kit Helford is just as wild and handsome as he’s always been. And Clemency knows only too well that he’s just as much trouble.
Scandalous Alchemy is the third book set in this world, but while it draws on some of the same characters of the first two books, I think you could start here if you wanted to without too much confusion, as there’s a break of some years between the end of the second book and the start of this one, and the previous main characters are very much only in the background. It is interesting to have Kit’s backstory, so I do think I had a deeper understanding of him from having read Hester and Crow and Wicked by Design, but his story here is distinct from previous events.
The marketing for this one is, I think, pretty wildly misleading. While I love the hardback cover and think it suits the story perfectly, the paperback’s been given a cover reminiscent of the recent Bridgerton redesign, and Bridgerton is mentioned in the full blurb, with pull quotes that focus on how sexy and romantic the love story is. I’m here to tell you that if you’re going into this expecting a regular Regency romance, you’re wildly mistaken. About the only thing this books shares with Bridgerton is a time period (and even then, not really, since this is an 1825 world where Napoleon won and much has occurred since). This isn’t a criticism of the book at all, which is an excellent alt-historical drama, but you won’t find the kind of two-hander, romance-focused story you’d expect from the way it’s being marketed; it’s much larger and broader in scale. Comparisons to the Poldark series or Outlander feel more apt to me, particularly with the dark subject matter (which I’ll talk about in a bit), but really, this is pretty unique!
Moran’s prose is lovely, with a historically-appropriate feel but enough pace to be extremely readable. The chapters are very short, and the perspective switches often, not just between the leads, Clemency and Kit, but between most of the characters of a fairly large cast, which means you get a really vivid, all-around picture of what’s going on, and nothing is black and white. Get ready for some complex emotions when you get into the betrayals and backstabbing! Reading this felt like watching a really beautifully filmed period drama – and now that I think about it, an adaptation would be gorgeous, and would really make the most of the vivid descriptions. It’s so easy to get swept away in the drama of it all.
I think Scandalous Alchemy is somewhat lighter in content than the previous two books, which were extremely bloody and dark, but it’s still fairly intense. Hester and Crow’s plots often felt like they were being beset by tragedy from all sides, but Kit’s story is a bit more swashbuckling and a little less traumatic! That being said, the book never lets you forget the realities of historical life – whether it’s in little details, like people being sweaty in their beautiful gowns, or large, like the stigma faced by unwed mothers, there’s no attempt to gloss over the grimness. I was really impressed at how evocative it was, and how it highlighted the cleverness of the world-building: even with the huge political changes from our world, it was still totally plausible in a way that seemed effortless, but I’m sure took a lot of work on the details.
If you’re in the mood for a sweeping, dramatic tale of political and personal machinations in a fascinatingly vivid historical setting, I definitely recommend this series. Five out of five cats!