Elle Hartford’s Beauty and the Alchemist is the first volume of a series rooted in fantasy, mystery and twists on timeless fairy tale tropes.
The story is set in The Beyond, a realm populated by witches, elves, fairies, phantoms and a host of other otherworldly denizens. Red, a traveling alchemist, has settled in the unassuming village of Belville, a town straight out of a fairy tale, complete with a creepy castle on its outskirts. At the novel’s outset, Red has been in Belville for years, working as an alchemist and a kind of private detective.
Her skills come into play when Luca, Red’s close friend and proprietor of the village bookshop, tells her that Owl, Luca’s former boss and a convicted thief of magical artifacts, has escaped custody, leaving a guard murdered in his wake.
This kicks off an investigation with twists worthy of any detective novel. A journey to the forbidding castle reveals another victim, and Red, aided by her partner William (who is also a former magician’s familiar and a talking sheepdog), must investigate a case involving an ancient curse, a horde of mist monsters, a not-quite dead ghost, a powerful set of books and a host of other developments.
From the start, elements of Hartford’s richly imagined world feel familiar. Readers will recognize the link between Red and Little Red Riding Hood, and narrative elements from Beauty and the Beast. Hartford imaginatively and largely successfully weaves a story that blends Aesop, the Brothers Grimm and Agatha Christie.
Occasionally, the action gets bogged down in heavy-handed exposition – stretches burdened with background about magical properties, mystical races and other elements. But Hartford writes with enthusiasm and craft, and her love for her carefully assembled world is impressively wrought.
Her approach should win fans of fantasy and mystery alike.
Also available as an ebook.