The Apothecary’s Curse: An original idea with too many plot elements

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The Apothecary’s Curse by Barbara Barnett fantasy book reviewsThe Apothecary’s Curse by Barbara Barnett

The Apothecary’s Curse, by Barbara Barnett, has wonderful ideas and many interesting elements. In particular, Barnett has a unique thought about the Celtic Faerie. Unfortunately, the story can’t quite support the weight of all the ideas, and the book’s time-jumping structure creates an episodic effect that vitiates the urgency. I don’t think this one succeeds, but I love the imagination at work here.

There are at least two discrete stories in The Apothecary’s Curse. There is a Victorian metaphysical thriller, of sorts, as two men, each immortal, struggle to keep their state a secret, and one of them is imprisoned in Bedlam and tortured. There is a present-day story that wants to be a medical thriller in the style of Robin Cook or Michael Crichton. The Victorian story comprises the bulk of the book, and it is the more interesting. The medical thriller was not thrilling and failed for me, in large part because a character who should be pivotal to that storyline, Anne Shawe, is more of a plot point than a developed character. Both stories rely heavily on coincidence.

Simon Bell is an aristocratic, well-established London physician in 1837, when the Victorian story starts. His beloved wife Sophie is dying of cancer, and, desperate, Bell reaches out to a successful but notorious apothecary, Gaelen Erceldoune. Bell does not know this at first, but Erceldoune is nearly 200 years old. In the late 1500s, when he was dying of the plague, he mixed a cure from the magical book his father, Thomas, gave him. The potion cured the plague and gifted — or cursed — Erceldoune with a vitality that protects him even from death. (You are thinking that name is familiar, and it is, from Thomas the Rhymer. That’s intentional.)

Bell begs Erceldoune for a cure for Sophie and the apothecary reluctantly mixes one. Bell does not follow the directions for the elixir exactly, and Sophie dies. Devastated and wracked with guilt, Bell swallows the rest of it. He does not die. To his surprise, over the next few years he finds that wounds heal quickly and when he attempts suicide, he is not successful.

Meanwhile, Erceldoune is being held in Bedlam Hospital and is the subject of sadistic “experiments” testing his rapid healing. He is tortured for five years, until he and Bell cross paths again. During his capture, Erceldoune loses the family book that had the recipe for the magical elixir.

In the present-day story, Anne Shawe is a geneticist who works for an unethical pharmaceutical company in England. She is leaving to do work at the Salk Institute in the US. She has a long layover in Chicago, and is contacted by a doctor at a Chicago hospital, who had read Anne’s papers on rapid cellular regeneration, and has a patient he wants her to see. The man nearly died in a motorcycle accident but his wounds were healing by the time the ER staff could get him into surgery. He has made a full recovery and has been dubbed The Miracle Man. Of course it is Gaelen Erceldoune, searching for his magic book under the guise of being an antiquarian book dealer. It turns out that both Bell and Erceldoune are in Chicago, still in contact, and both searching for the book. Bell wants it so that his friend will reverse the potion, so he can die and join his beloved Sophie.

The Victorian story, while slow, is well-researched and interesting. Simon Bell’s sister, Eleanor, is an interesting character who drives large parts of the plot — in fact, Bell and Erceldoune are most often bystanders as the story happens to them or around them. The villain in the Victorian period is flat, but still manages to inject some menace into the story.

The present-day tale requires that Anne often do things that are foolish, or at least not in her character as we’ve seen it, so that the plot will work. For example, Anne has stopped answering her ex-fiance’s calls (he is committed to the evil pharmaceutical company). Once she gets to Chicago and realizes what Gaelen is, she starts taking the ex’s calls, dropping clues and revealing information right and left. She isn’t the only one who does this sort of thing, but it is most noticeable in her case partly because she appears relatively late in the book and actually exists only to bring Erceldoune something he needs.

Barnett also tries to add romantic danger and suspense with a plot element similar to one used in the MORTAL INSTRUMENTS series. Instead of creating tension, this brought a certain ickiness into the story until it is easily resolved, in one sentence, a few pages from the end.

Other reviews and jacket copy will mention that The Apothecary’s Curse is like a Sherlock Holmes story. Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes are a recurring theme, but there is nothing Holmesian about the book.

I wish more time had been devoted to acts and conflicts in the Victorian period; Erceldoune’s interactions with a pimp, his conflicted feelings for Eleanor, her bad marriage, his resentment of the physicians who look down on people like him, the imprisonment and torture were plenty for a book-long work. The modern story never convinced me of any urgency.

I was disappointed, but one thing I loved here was the idea of the book, and the premise about the Tuatha de Danann. This was genuinely original and a nice spin on the idea of Faerie. I hope Barnett writes more with this idea. It’s a good one.

Published October 11, 2016. In Victorian London, the fates of physician Simon Bell and apothecary Gaelan Erceldoune entwine when Simon gives his wife an elixir created by Gaelan from an ancient manuscript. Meant to cure her cancer, it kills her. Suicidal, Simon swallows the remainder–only to find he cannot die. Five years later, hearing rumors of a Bedlam inmate with regenerative powers like his own, Simon is shocked to discover it’s Gaelan. The two men conceal their immortality, but the only hope of reversing their condition rests with Gaelan’s missing manuscript. When modern-day pharmaceutical company Transdiff Genomics unearths diaries describing the torture of Bedlam inmates, the company’s scientists suspect a link between Gaelan and an unnamed inmate. Gaelan and Transdiff Genomics geneticist Anne Shawe are powerfully drawn to each other, and her family connection to his manuscript leads to a stunning revelation. Will it bring ruin or redemption?

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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One comment

  1. There are clearly some good concepts at play here. I’m sorry to hear that they weren’t more successful for you, though!

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