I’The Accidental Alchemistve always had a fascination with how people explain bumps in the night. It started when my (military) family moved to Rome, Italy, when I was nine. I spent three years in the Eternal City, where I was surrounded by references to mythology both Greek and Roman, Etruscan and Egyptian. It moved on to still other cultures, where I compared their beliefs and looked for commonalities. The fact that others had come to the same conclusions before me wasn’t a disappointment. It told me I wasn’t alone in this fascination.

A year into my stay, I had also gained a fascination for science, and the subjects of history, science, and mythology mixed around in my head as I also started reading more and more science fiction and fantasy. I loved it. So very many fun things, all of which could run into each other at different angles, combining to form new stories, yet with familiar elements. It was like playing new games with old friends.

That only deepened as I grew older, and I found myself looking at alchemy in that tripartite way. I looked at it as a mythology, bound up in how people thought the world worked. I studied it as the precursor to chemistry, and the crazy uncle of physics. I delighted in the way the exploration of alchemy was so tied up in historical events, yet not quite so obvious in its connection, and therefore requiring careful exploration. It was a mythology not as glamorous as the gods of Mount Olympus; it was embarrassing to many scientists; and it was dismissed as irrelevant by most historians. I thought it was fun.

So, when I spotted The Accidental Alchemist, by Gigi Pandian, and read a review that mentioned the detailed research the author had undergone to write it, I thought it worth a try. And boy, am I glad I did.Fundamentally, The Accidental Alchemist is an urban fantasy mystery. Zoe Faust has put aside alchemy and wants to build a new life in Portland; but she’s not even there for a day when there’s already a dead body on her doorstep. Being over four hundred years old, she’s no stranger to dead bodies; and being born in Salem, Massachusetts (yes, of witch trial fame) means she’s no stranger to persecution, either. Still, being the prime suspect in a murder investigation is hardly something she enjoys.

And when you add in that she discovers a stowaway French gargoyle in her belongings who needs her to delve back into alchemy to save his life, and you’ve got the makings of a very bad month. Still, at least the gargoyle can cook.

The Accidental Alchemist isn’t the strongest book I’ve ever read, but it’s one I’ll read again, and that’s what’s important. There are many descriptive and plot elements that could have been much stronger without changing the story, and to be honest I found the budding romance (read: pure physical attraction) between Zoe and Detective Max Liu to be an annoying distraction that had the potential to be a great subplot but came off like Zoe hadn’t even seen a man in about fifty years.

It’s also, sadly, quite expensive for its length. It’s priced at ten dollars in Kindle at this moment (fifteen at full price), but is less than four hundred pages long. As the dead-tree and audio editions are both just shy of twelve dollars, you might want to look at those. I went for the audio, myself.

The good parts made the audio worth it, in particular the gargoyle, Dorian. Ironically, he was the most human and fun of all the characters; and the narrator, Julia Motyka, does an excellent job of portraying his Frenchness. (I’m always jealous of any non-French who can assume a smooth and natural French accent, meaning without making the uvular fricatives sound like someone’s hacking up a hairball.) The boy Brixton turned out to have some very funny lines as well, and has the best character arc of the story.

And the detail on the alchemy is just fun. All that stuff that I liked about looking it up — the mythology, the history, and the science — is here in the book, in a better and more entertaining distillation than I’ve ever found in one volume. It makes for a really interesting take on low fantasy, in the sense of fantasy with few fantastical elements. Low fantasy normally doesn’t have this much wealth of detail about the supernatural without those supernatural elements being far more spectacular.

And of course, the food was fun. Seriously, I don’t normally get hungry from reading novels, but there was just enough detail about the food that gargoyle chef Dorian Robert-Houdin whips up to make me want to go cook. It just so happens that I enjoy clever recipes exactly like what he was experimenting with; while I’m not vegan, I’ve cooked enough for people with severe allergies to know both the frustration of working without common ingredients and also the triumph of finding something that worked. There was probably too much detail in there for anyone who doesn’t cook, but if you’re even marginally into kitchen experimentation then you know exactly what I mean.

To be honest, the most disappointing thing about this book was that there wasn’t a second. It’s a new release, so it’ll be a while before the next book in the series comes out. It is, however, labeled as a series, so we should hopefully get it by this time next year. It stands very well on its own, though, so if you’re worried about cliffhangers, don’t. This is a book where you want the next one not so much to find out what happens, but rather because you just want to hang out with the characters some more.