________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 12 . . . .February 18, 2005


The Alchemist's Daughter.

Eileen Kernaghan.
Saskatoon, SK: Thistledown Press, 2004.
187 pp, pbk., $15.95.
ISBN 1-894345-79-7.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Lisa Doucet.

*** /4



Sidonie took the crystal from its velvet pouch, removed its muslin wrapping. Cradled in her palm, it seemed to gather into itself all the radiance of the jeweled and gilded room. Sidonie let her breath slow, willed her pounding heart to a quieter rhythm. The Queen needs must discover what the future holds, her father had said. For England-and for herself. There were no shadows in this room to obscure the vision in the glass; the images of clustered spars sprang forth as vivid and as detailed as figures on a tapestry.

But behind those sharper images lay something else: a vague, rounded shape half-glimpsed through curdled mist in the crystal's depths. More sensed than seen, it made Sidonie's throat tighten with an inexplicable dread. She turned the glass this way and that, trying to make the elusive shape come clear, but almost at once the mist closed over it.

Sidonie drew a long breath. Looking away, finally, she picked up the piece of muslin and carefully wrapped it around the glass.

"Yes? Yes?" The Queen's voice was edged with impatience. "What is it you see?"

"I see what could be church spires, Your Majesty. Or trees. Or flagpoles, perhaps?" Her glance fell away.

"Could be... could be..." the Queen said sharply. "Why do you fear to tell me what you see, Sidonie Quince?"

"Because I fear it bodes ill for yourself and for England, Ma'am."


Best known for her highly-acclaimed fantasy novels, author Eileen Kernaghan here turns her hand to a book that is both historical and magical in scope. In England during the late 1500's, the only daughter of a very earnest and highly enthusiastic alchemist finds herself reluctantly caught in the midst of high adventure and political intrigue. Sidonie Quince is more than a little anxious, and dismayed, at the story's outset when she learns that she and her father have been summoned to the palace of Queen Elizabeth. There, she is to use her gift for scrying to read what the future holds for Elizabeth and for all of England. It comes as no surprise to anyone that what Sidonie sees is a great host of Spanish warships advancing upon English shores.

     However, it is not just Sidonie's ability to read the scrying crystal that has the potential to be very useful. When Sidonie's father boasts that he is "that close" to uncovering the secret of turning metal into gold, Sidonie realizes with a sinking heart that he has committed himself to something very major indeed, something that could cost him his life if he proves unable to deliver on this claim. Although Simon Quince, himself, has unwavering faith in his ability to succeed in this task, his daughter is less certain. In an effort to assist him, she embarks on a journey to find the special ingredient that just might possibly aid him in his alchemical endeavors and thereby save him from certain doom.

     The Alchemist's Daughter is a tale that is steeped in mood and atmosphere. The language is rich and elegant, transporting one easily to a far-distant time and lending the story an almost fairytale quality. The mystical nature of Sidonie's quest only heightens the sense of otherworldliness, of things fantastical. Yet it can also be said of this book that it provides a very pleasing taste of Elizabethan life. Through its wealth of details, it creates an earthy and accurate image of the times. Readers will feel immersed in the England of Sidonie's day. They may also become curious about some of the realities of life at that time, things like the pending war with Spain and the references to the destruction of the old abbeys under King Henry as the New Religion was established. The fantasy elements of the book notwithstanding, it is very rooted in a real-life setting with a rich and colourful history that proves to be compelling for readers of all different ages.

     Yet, although the story can be described as historical fiction, it will still largely appeal to fantasy readers who will be drawn to the magical aspects of the story and who will appreciate the more sophisticated style of the writing. Less enthusiastic readers will be bogged down by the language and will find the plot slow-moving and not so easy to follow, with even the climax lacking a certain drama. As a protagonist, Sidonie is a sympathetic character whose role as the more pragmatic member of their household, the one who has to look out for her more scattered father, further endears her to readers. I had hoped that some of the other characters would have been more fully developed throughout the story, characters like Adrian Gilbert and even the old monk encountered at the Abbey. I had anticipated that some of the minor characters would take on more significant roles in the story, and I was disappointed when they did not. Even Kit, Sidonie's good friend and travel companion, remained fairly one-dimensional, and I would also have liked to see the relationship between him and Sidonie evolve as part of the plot. The Alchemist's Daughter is, nonetheless, a pleasing read, and with its lovely cover art, this book should find a place in many library fantasy collections (although it was disappointing to see the author's name spelled incorrectly on the book's spine!)


Lisa Doucet is a children's bookseller at Woozles in Halifax, NS.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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