The Alchemist Apprentice may be my favorite Christopher G. Nuttall book yet. It hits so many sweet spots that I personally enjoy
Our heroine is a young girl named Rebecca who is being sold into service by her step-father, who does not particularly care to have his wife’s half-caste bastard in his house. Her Hangchow father is obvious in her facial features, so there is no way that he can claim her as his own.
The Hiring Hall is a frightening place. Many masters are uncaring or cruel. Luckily, Rebecca ends up as the shop girl for an alchemist who is stern but fair and, occasionally, even kind. What follows is some years of a pleasant existence.
I love stories of this kind: a girl in a shop, trying hard to please her boss and dreaming of a happy future. In this particular case, the future she wishes for is to become the alchemist’s official apprentice. She is good with potions and works hard–Nuttall does great scenes of people carefully concocting potions—and being female is no impediment in the world of potionmasters. She has reason to believe he might be willing to accept her.
Only tragedy strikes!
Her master dead and the shop destroyed, Rebecca finds herself left with nothing. Worse, she is a suspect in the death of her beloved master. When her step-father refuses to take her back, her only hope is to make a deal with an infamous crime boss who is willing to help her–if she will retrieve a notebook that had belonged to her master from Reginald Bolingbroke, the young man who was responsible for her master’s death.
Posing as a maid, Rebecca infiltrates one of the great families of Shallot. House Bolingbroke claims to be among the oldest of the great houses, but they are a bit declined from their heyday. Eager to regain a prominent position, they are scheming to come to the attention of the movers and shakers of the day, including characters readers may recognize from previous books.
A new life begins for Rebecca. She has some experience at cleaning and other tasks, but her job is made harder by difficult staff members and by the crime lord, whose agents—coming to check up on Rebecca’s progress—are mistaken for gentlemen callers by the disapproving housekeeper. Luckily, her fellow maid, Jill, is charming and sweet, a bright spot in the toil of Rebecca’s current life.
Nuttall perfectly captures the charm of “Upstairs/Downstairs” style stories, showing us the grand life from the point of view of Rebecca’s job as a maid. In one delightful scene, we see a ball from the point of view of the staff. This scene is triply charming—for me anyway—because not only do characters from earlier books appear, but Rebecca sees another half-caste girl whom society has not cast aside—Rachel of House Griffin.
This Rachel is the local reflection, so to speak, of Rachel Griffin of Roanoke Academy. Nuttall does a charming job of portraying Alternate Rachel and her family.
During the ball, however, Rebecca discovers clues that eventually lead her to find the place where the notebook she seeks is hidden. From this, she slowly figures out what daring and dire thing Reginald Bolingbroke is up to.
Unfortunately, Reginald catches her in the act infiltrating his room and puts her under a geas, now her life is doubly hard!
Able to speak to no one about this, Rebecca must find a way to retrieve her master’s property, satisfy the crime boss, and keep Reginald from carrying out his dastardly plan.
Each section of the book: shop girl, girl on the run, servant, etc. is done with care that makes the story really enjoyable. Difficult things happen to Rebecca, but she keeps her wits about her. This glimpse into a different aspect of life in the Zero world is charming and intriguing. I hope Nuttall can be persuaded to tell us more of Rebecca’s story.