Ash Woods is a trans man living in a world where alchemic magic exists. He originally started learning to focus his alchemy to help him rework his body, but that never panned out. All his life, Ash has wanted to make his father notice him, especially since his mage father abandoned him and his mother before his birth. Ash lives in a slum, and, because he has no title or fortune, he has no chance of acceptance at Lancaster’s Mage College, despite his raw alchemic power. He is hired as a groundskeeper’s assistant at the college, however. Ash illegally self trains, picking up discarded books from the wealthy and spoiled students. Only licensed mages can practice alchemy, so he’s in big trouble when one of the tutors, Ramsey Thorne, discovers Ash capable of high-level alchemy.
While Ramsey could turn in Ash to the Kendrick Reds (the police force) for hanging, they decide to offer Ash lessons in exchange for his help in locating the Book of Source. This mythical Book supposedly enables a power conduit that could unleash all alchemists from their societal shackles. Ramsey wants this book to restore their family name to one of respect, since their parents were executed after demolishing an entire town’s inhabitants with dark alchemy. Ramsey believes harnessing Ash’s alchemy will foster a synergy that will power their search for the Book. However, Ash’s father is also hot on the trail of the Book, and he’s willing to kill others to get it. Ash’s father has made quite a habit of recruiting assassins from the House that is most opposed to alchemy.
The more Ash and Ramsey interact and synergize, the more they experience attraction for each other. Also, the more dangerous this alliance becomes. Their connection grows to the point they become intimate, which powers their vision-questing for the Book. However, the assassin grows nearer, inadvertently blowing up Ash’s life and marking both of them criminal fugitives. Ash is desperate to reconnect with Ramsey, leaning heavily on the help of Ramsey’s despised former lover, Callum Kendrick, to escape certain death. And, Callum and Ash also develop some feelings through their ordeals.
Escaping without injury is challenging, but the journey to obtain the Book is even more difficult. Ramsey must swallow their pride, Callum must give up his name and its rights, and Ash must bridge the crevasse between them to help find the Book before Ash’s sociopathic father can absorb its mysteries and power–and destroy their worlds.
This is an intricate and consuming epic adventure, with many POVs alternating with different insights. Ash carries most of the story, but Ramsey, Callum, Ash’s father, and a few other characters have their thoughts on the page. That made it a little more challenging to keep track of the plot, especially as Ramsey’s gender switches regularly. There’s so much alchemy, I was thrilled. Often, I find epic fantasy is too grounded in reality, with only the smallest nods to magic, but here we have alchemy practiced all the time, and in ways that made sense. The polyamorous intimacy is not the objective of this story, but develops with the closeness that’s imperative to make their quest possible. I really liked that the characters were mindful of their emotions and had conversations that helped resolve their conflict, rather than stew and suffer.
The end is a sound resolution, but leaves the door open for a sequel. And, their world is certainly in need of alchemic assistance to overcome the terror that finding the Book unleashes.