I was excited and thrilled to see The Apothecary’s Curse highlighted in Barnes and Noble’s recent review newsletter in a piece on called “Worlds of the New Dreamers: Fresh Fantasy from Women Writers.” Spotlighting four new novels by women fantasy writers, the article noted,
“The rising popularity of fantasy seemed to encourage a growing number of women writers to come to the fore. The short canon of wonderful female fantasists from a prior generation–a list that would include E. Nesbit, Hope Mirrlees, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Evangeline Walton, Jane Gaskell, Katherine Kurtz, and Angela Carter–was rapidly supplemented. Today we consider four current representatives from this new generation of strong and innovative writers working in the realm of fantasy — and one new work by an established master that argues for fantasy’s deep relevance in our lives.”
Here’s B/N’s review of The Apothecary’s Curse:
When the term “urban fantasy” first began to receive wide usage, around the start of the 1980s, it referred to books with modern settings naturalistically rendered, into which uncanny doings and beings of all stripes intruded. The pulp magazine Unknown had pioneered many such tales. By 1970, a book like Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amberrevealed state-of-the-art sophistications. Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness (1977) provided a prime example, as did John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981). But then the growing popularity of paranormal romances allowed that mode to usurp the term, so that nowadays the label seems to get affixed to nothing but endless volumes full of plucky youngsters battling and romancing the hoary bugbears of a Gothic past.
Barbara Barnett’s The Apothecary’s Curse is solid and gripping urban fantasy of the old school, and might on the strength of its telling help to revive the original usage of the term. Additionally, it walks the wire between magic and science to fine effect.
We open with a vignette from 1902, in which two mysterious men converse at a party with Arthur Conan Doyle. Although Holmesian motifs do pop up in the bulk of the narrative, the true practical and symbolic significance of this encounter remains hidden till the last chapter, given in a great reveal. But let us turn our attention to the pair of odd ducks. They are Simon Bell and Gaelan Erceldoune. What we will learn about them, over the course of separate accounts—one thread set in the 1800s, one in the present day—is that they are immortals linked by many shared passions and antagonisms. Gaelan is the older: he accidentally made himself undying in the 1600’s, when he concocted a plague antidote from a mysterious grimoire supposedly gifted to his family by the fairies. (Or is it a book of pre-technological science?) In the 1800s, his path crossed with Simon’s, and through elaborate circumstances, he conferred immortality on Simon as well. That long Victorian adventure is given at intervals so that it may complement the realtime narrative.
It’s the year 2016 in the city of Chicago, and Simon is living large, as a famous author of Holmesian pastiches. Gaelan, more stressed and ragged, runs a rare-book store as a cover for his quest for the original book of magic, which went missing in the 1800s. Both men are “half in love with easeful death,” and anticipate ending their extended lives if they ever find the right spell. But Gaelan’s existence is more tortured, and when he experiences what should be a fatal accident that leaves him impossibly intact, his inexplicable and very public survival draws the attention of doctors and scientists eager to dissect him and learn his secrets. One of the researchers, Dr. Anne Shawe, eventually comes over to Gaelan’s side, and now it’s her and the two immortals against a greedy world.
Barnett injects plenty of melodrama into the Victorian thread, and lots of thriller-type action into the contemporary narrative. But all the clever plotting does not obscure her deft treatment of the ethical, emotional and philosophical issues of immortality. She truly conveys the weight of the centuries in her depiction of Simon and Gaelan. As well, several affairs of the heart receive splendid play.
Combining a little of the transtemporal fatedness of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander with the sparring immortals from the Highlander film franchise, Barnett has created a unique urban fantasy that delivers pure magic intertwined with the quotidian demands of our daily lives—even if we are not all immortals.
You can buy TAC at your favorite Barnes and Noble or indie bookseller, or order online from your favorite store!