Review: The Alchemy of Forever by Avery Williams

Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Genre: young-adult, supernatural fiction
Series: Incarnation #1
Pages: 256 (digital ARC edition)
Published: January 2012
Source: publishers for review
Rating: 4/5

After spending six hundred years on earth, Seraphina Ames has seen it all. Eternal life provides her with the world's riches, but at a very high price: innocent lives. Centuries ago, her boyfriend, Cyrus, discovered a method of alchemy that allows them to swap bodies with other humans, jumping from one vessel to the next, taking the human's life in the process. No longer able to bear the guilt of what she's done, Sera escapes from Cyrus and vows to never kill again.

Then sixteen-year-old Kailey Morgan gets into a horrific car accident right in front of her, and Sera accidentally takes over her body. For the first time, Sera finds herself enjoying the life of the person she's inhabiting--and falls for the human boy who lives next door. But Cyrus will stop at nothing until she's his again, and every moment she stays, she's putting herself and the people she's grown to care for in great danger. Will Sera have to give up the one thing that's eluded her for centuries: true love?

Short but sweet, The Alchemy of Forever is deceptively simple and remarkably engaging. The plot may not be entirely the most original, nor the writing the most striking, though it certainly has its moments of sparkle, but this was an unputdownable read.  Finished in under three hours, my first experience with the series of the Incarnates was like the perfect sugary snack between actual meals: filling while eating and left no feelings of guilt or shame when I was finished. With both a great title and a new spin on teen immortality that isn't vampires or even vampire-adjacent in its immediate favor, I obviously found The Alchemy of Forever to be a very entertaining novel.

Seraphina and her story are instantly energetic; her story begins on a night of death but it is far from the end of Sera's existence. Alchemy, an ancient (and real) fruitless search for gold/youth and immortality among others, is successful in this alternative world of Williams's imagining, and wonderfully so. In this fantastical London, science and magic are indistinguishable, and fit in wonderfully with Sera's tale of escape and redemption. Sera and Cyrus have a core, selected group with which they share fellowship: Charlotte, Sera's BFF for 200 years; Jared, a pirate from the 1660's and a sort of enforcer for Cyrus; Sebastien, a reticent and largely unseen and mysterious member of the coven; and lastly, Amelia, an icy blonde that seems to harbor ill will toward both Charlotte and Sera. With each member needing a new body roughly every ten years, this is a group with many ghosts in the closet, though only Seraphina is shown to have any remorse for the killing left in their wake. While this seems to be set in an alternative world to ours, different only in the successful alchemy, I thought I caught a reference to Bram Stoker's Dracula - a dog named Harker that doesn't seem to take to Kailey/Sera... As I've mentioned I find the Incarnates condition and modus operandi (stalking/killing victim to replenish own lifeforce) and vampires to be very similar, I wonder if it is an intentional mention. There's not enough evidence to be sure yet, but I will be on the lookout for more clues/conspiracies in the sequel.

By virtue of becoming 'Incarnates' aka basically "body snatchers" with original souls in tact with her first love Cyrus, Sera endures centuries of life - but not real love, nor true happiness despite all the exotic experiences had and places she has been. Cyrus emerges as controlling, insane, volatile type of man - but happily, instead of mistaking this psychotic behavior as the danger it is and not misconstruing it as love, Sera attempts to free herself from his clutches. Even the act of hiding petty change gives her a thrill, to "have something that was mine." From the moment I realized Sera's plans, I liked her. For the first time in centuries, Sera dares to make her own decisions, dare to dream for herself instead of fearing what Cyrus will do to her as punishment. Her naivete at 14 haunts her for the most part of her endless centuries of life, and her maturation from selfish, thoughtless girl into an actual woman takes longer than eighteen years. Sera is a very introspective woman, as can be expected from someone downtrodden and controlled for so long, and that means much of this book is not action. As I adjusted to Sera and her style, I appreciated more the inwards-bent of her thinking - this is another of those characters that sneak up in your affections.

The Alchemy of Forever is a very engaging if all too brief, novel both in terms of character, and the unique, entirely welcome new spin on immortality. But this is also slightly disquieting book. The notion of "body snatching" is itself pretty creepy - the actual person is dead but the shell remains, with another inside, unbeknownst to anyone else. There are no less than three movies since 1945 devoted to how horrific this concept is to us. Sera herself seems very aware of this, commenting internally and often that "the daughter they knew was dead and they had no idea" in several different reiterations, with just Sera wearing her skin.  And the fact that there is an entire coven of immortal-body-snatching-murderers-with-permanent-wanderlust out there adds another level of menace to the novel it otherwise lacks. Cyrus certainly makes for an adequate villain and foil for Sera - more than adequate when he's actually present on the page instead of a ghost or memory- but the threat of him doesn't inspire as much tension as it could otherwise.

While I can't say the "relationship" between Sera/Kailey and Noah the black-haired neighbor-boy with a heart of gold smacks of the long-sought-after and advertised "true love" from above, there is a clear chemistry and sweetness between the two. I think I found Noah a bit too wide-eyed and perfect to entirely believe in him - or his continued attraction to Kailey after it emerges how shoddily she treated him for years - but overall I liked his character and could see the appeal even if I stood outside of it. From what is alluded to about Kailey pre-Sera she seems like a hard-to-like girl as well, so I wonder why Noah didn't remark upon the abrupt and 180 degree attitude changes that "Kailey" experienced in the novel...? I also wonder at how this thing between the two will develop - how will Sera reconcile Noah to the fact that the Kailey he knew is gone but the "Kailey" he loves is an immortal murderess hundreds of years older than himself? But while I found the 'love' between the 'teens' to be somewhat lacking, the home relationship and dynamic of the Morgans is refreshing and warm, and real. They present a stark and very bleak comparison to the 'love and family' that Sera has known for centuries with the coven, and it's nice to read a non dysfunctional family once in a while.

The ending is abrupt, let's just say that. It comes to a screaming and ominous cliffhanger right at the very moment you most wish to keep reading. While I can understand the cutoff as an incentive to read the next novel it left me somewhat dissatisfied with this first in the series. Unfortunately, many, many threads are left wide-open after that bastard of a cliffhanger for an ending and no main conflict is resolved - the book just ends. What happened to the magical book Sera had the night she switched bodies? What happened to Taryn, who might know all of Sera's secrets? What was Kailey doing the night she died? The questions are endless and enough to ensure, above all doubt and frustration with this finale, I will be continuing this series. 

Another cover, though I like the first the most:

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