R.A. Denny. The Alchemy Thief. 2021. Go here to purchase the book.
This book is the first of R.A. Denny’s “Pirates and Puritans” series. Whereas her previous series, “Tales of Tzoladia,” was fantasy, this book is a combination of historical and science fiction.
Two people from the twenty-first century end up in the seventeenth century. One is Ayoub, a member of ISIS. The other is Peri, short for “Experience.” They do not know each other and accidentally end up in the past at different times, with neither knowing about the other until later in the book. Ayoub is on a pirate ship with other Muslims, whereas Peri is with the Puritans, among whom her name “Experience” is not unusual.
Ayoub initially struggles to understand and to fit into his new surroundings. The Muslim crew finds him unusual and speculates that he is possessed with a jinn, especially when he tries to explain twenty-first century weaponry to them. They take him to an Islamic mystic, who proves to be a gentle presence throughout the book. Over the years, Ayoub comes to attain a prominent and respectable position among the crew. The question then becomes whether Ayoub will use his knowledge of the future to change history and establish a caliphate, right when America is in its infancy stage.
Peri confronts her own set of challenges among the Puritans. She is arrested for witchcraft due to the nature of her arrival and controversial things that she innocently says, but she is rescued by the Puritan leader John Winthrop, who is unsure what to make of her but has his own affinity with alchemy, which arguably overlaps with witchcraft. (Not that he would say that, but he would be more open to the bizarre or the paranormal than the average Puritan.) Peri also tries to adapt to a patriarchal society with stricter sexual and social mores.
Other characters are Peri’s love interests. In the twenty-first century, there is Liam. Unknown to Peri, Liam is a secret ISIS recruit, reaching out to her as part of a larger agenda whose intricacies are hidden even from him. He encourages her to take a class with Professor Bey, who turns out to have his own mysterious history. In the seventeenth century, there is Daniel, a gifted Native American convert to Puritan Christianity.
The struggles by Ayoub and Peri to adjust to new surroundings, and those surroundings’ attempts to grapple with them, are an asset to this book. Perhaps that element could have been enhanced had the Puritan characters not spoken in contractions (“can’t,” “don’t”). At first, they were formal in their speech, but their speech became less formal as the book went on.
This part of the book is profound, as it highlights the nuances of historical characters and how they are more rounded than their conventional portrayal suggests:
“[Willam] Harris had spoken up for some pacifists which caused Roger Williams to call him an anarchist. Peri had never heard of this controversy. She had been taught that Williams was the most tolerant of the Puritans. She wondered if Harris had hanged.”
Other noteworthy aspects of the book include how a conventional Western young man like Liam could become drawn to ISIS, and how God led Daniel, within his own Native American culture, to become open to Christianity. The latter will resonate with those who enjoy Don Richardson’s Eternity in their Hearts, which concerns how God reveals Godself in non-Christian cultures and thus makes them open to the Gospel.
The best part of the story itself is when Peri finally meets Ayoub, with each of them surprised to encounter another time traveler.
This book is clearer than Denny’s “Tzoladia” series. I was still confused in some places, perhaps because of my own struggle with reading fiction. Non-fiction is better at laying things out, whereas, with fiction, the reader needs to do more work on his or her own part. Not really understanding what a “bodkin” is may have sown some confusion on my part, as the bodkin plays a significant part in this book; there is also the factor, if memory serves me correctly, that there are two supernatural bodkins, yet both are the same one: the one in the museum, and that bodkin in the past.
I was a little unclear about how Peri could marry Daniel when she was Ayoub’s captive.
Then there is the identification of the mysterious Dr. Bey. He turns out to be another character who is in the book, but my response was “Who?” I do not think he was the Islamic mystic, since the Islamic mystic is a good person, but I am unsure. Sorry for the spoiler there. Perhaps that aspect of the book could have been resolved had Denny included in the back a guide about the main characters, like her excellent guide about the historical personages in the book.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author. My review is honest!