Author R. A. Denny treats us to a great historical fiction fantasy tale, set in the mid 1650s. I have always loved historical fiction books because the author takes a real event or character and breathes life and context into it, and how those details are done is always fascinating. The Alchemy Thief does that, and then some, through its characters. An added treat is that the characters developed for this novel have a personal meaning to Ms. Denny, making the story that much more real.
The story starts in modern time when two young people come into a possession of an ancient bodkin, made of metal researched by alchemists. Covered with mysterious markings and a stone, and unbeknownst to the two young characters in the novel, the bodkin catalyzes time travel when exposed to lightning.
One of the people, the genealogy-loving American college freshman Experience “Peri” Fuller goes back to discover her Puritan New England roots and experience history of her distant relatives. She learns about the People of the First Light Nation history and culture, and falls in love with Daniel, the son of the sachem (chief) Myoxeo.
Since Peri knows some of her family and regional history, she tries to make the best of her circumstances while trying to figure out how to return to her own time. She tries to fit into her new culture and influence outcomes without becoming condemned as a witch, no feat for a modern person in that age! She has not yet learned that while she cannot change history, history may change her.
Unable to prevent the sailing off the ill-fated Hopewell, Peri sails to travel to England with Daniel. When the Hopewellis attacked and overtaken by the Black Raven, fate crosses her path with Ayoub.
This second person, a young thief and terrorist Ayoub, is teleported to the time of the height of the Salé Rovers. He is rescued by a pirate ship, and predictably chooses continues his life’s path through piracy.
Ayoub dreams of destruction of Allah’s enemies at any cost, a goal so ingrained in his young life that he ‘dreams’ in horrific nightmares and is accused of being possessed by a djinn (a spirit).
Thoughts on the book’s historical themes
The character of Peri, who was over-protected by her mother and at the start of the book does not know how she will handle college away from friends and family, grows much stronger towards the end. As an amateur HF writer, the piece that I wanted to explore was the origins of the two main characters – which seemed to have a ‘backstory,’ no pun intended.
Ms. Denny wanted to give Peri an opportunity to discover her strengths through the story’s tests. What I learned was that Peri’s character was inspired by two real-life, amazing women that overcame the hardships of their time.
The first inspiration was Ms. Denny’s mother, who overcame great personal adversity at a very young age—the untimely death of her own mother at childbirth. She survived the Great Depression, and later beat her advanced cancer diagnosis by 15 years. The other inspiration was the real Hanna Mayhew Daggett, whose life in 17th century New England was also filled with great challenges of her own time. Young Hanna appears as a character in the novel. Denny wanted to explore the personal courage of these two women, and Peri was the ideal character for that exploration.
The pitiful character of Ayoub remains an anger-driven zealot. This is another composite character based on real life of Ms. Denny’s work, who prior to taking up the quill was a criminal prosecutor. After a career-long study of what made traumatized children commit violent crimes, Ms. Denny wrote her knowledge into a character of a modern day 10-year-old child terrorist who has not experienced much love in his childhood.
Unlike Peri’s over-protected childhood, Ayoub repeatedly witnessed horrific torture and murder, including the act of suicide bombing by his own mother. Within his portion of the book – a timeline of some 10 years, Ayoub struggles with controlling his anger. His black-and-white extremist reactions were beaten into him, dehumanizing him to become a murderous creature. Even later events of kindness, such as shown by his captain, fail to moderate his outlook and are seen as means that propel him on his life-long, violent quest to establish a caliphate. (More on that in the second book though!)
I also enjoyed the nod to naval history in this book. Like most naval history buffs, I certainly was aware of the Salé Rovers. The Alchemy Thief shows some of the historical research Denny has done—the real-life Thomas Mayhew Senior’s belief that his son did not perish at sea. The novel explores the fate of its characters after the skirmish with Ayoub’s Black Raven.
As the readers doubtlessly know, before the Barbary Wars, the real-life Barbary Pirates terrorized shipping and raided coastal towns around the geography of north-western Africa, Atlantic, and Mediterranean. There are also accounts of trade and settlement on the eastern seaboard of New England Antony Janszoon van Salee, (the real-life son of Murat Reis or the Admiral of the Salé Rovers) lived in the area that is now Coney Island.
Since the Salé Rovers captured Christian ships, goods captured crews as well as any passengers became profits. In her research, Denny mentions that circa 1,000,000 were captured, ransomed, or sold into slavery over about 100 years. In a twist where a storm blows her further south, the Hopewell becomes an attractive target for the Rovers, and Peri faces more tests of personal courage.
Even though the ending was foreshadowed in an early scene, I was also completely surprised in the end. I am not going to spoil it, but Brahim’s character and action was a total shock to me. I even went back to re-read the setup scene – very well done by Denny and a complete payoff to the book’s title!
I really enjoyed learning more about Ms. Denny’s research for the story, how it influenced the characters, and the historical details of New England and Morocco. I also really enjoyed reading the Alchemy Thief and I look forward to books two and three. Pick up a copy of the Alchemy Thief on Amazon – if you are a subscriber of Kindle Unlimited, the book is also available there.