Publisher: Seamchecker Ent.
Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher (via NetGalley) in exchange for an honest review. All of the views in this review are my own.
That Potent Alchemy, the third book in Tess Bowery’s “Treading the Boards” series blows all of the historical romances I’ve been reading clear out of the water. One of my frequent complaints about diversity in publishing is that it’s very difficult to find authors who write characters I can relate to because they’re like me. Because they’re queer and brown and gender-whatever like me.
And That Potent Alchemy gave me that sense of belonging, that “I could be here” feeling that I rarely find in the historical romances I read.
In Tess Bowery’s England, there’s room for queer women and genderfluid people to be.
I often feel as though I couldn’t exist in the books that I read because of the absence of many intersections of identity. Historical fiction in particular often makes me feel like I don’t belong because there are so many authors who decide that in the face of “historical accuracy”, diversity must suffer – or simply not exist. (Despite the fact that queer people have always existed in some form or another.)
Do you know how good it feels to come across a book like That Potent Alchemy that has accurate depictions of life in that time period and a genderfluid main character?
That Potent Alchemy (re)introduces readers to Grace Owens, the dear friend of actress Marguerite Ceniza, one of two female leads in 2015’s She Whom I Love. Grace is snarky, sharp-edged, and still bears some of the metaphysical bruises from a less than loving childhood. I fell in love with her from the moment I saw her in the pages of She Whom I Love and I hoped from that moment on that she would be the next character to get their own book.
And, because Tess Bowery is excellent at giving readers what we want, that’s exactly what we get with That Potent Alchemy.
For me, it was love at the first page. I love the character voices and the way that Grace’s natural cautiousness unfolds, her defenses lowering slowly as machinist Isaac Caird tries his hardest to get to know her and court her. Every single thing about this book made me downright giddy because it was a hundred percent what I want from historical romance.
I love Grace. I love her drive and her talent and the sharpness of her everything.
I adore her love interest Isaac Caird. He’s literally the kind of guy I’d love to date and a total sweetheart on top of that. Part of why I adore his character, aside from the brilliance of his mastery of stagecraft, is how much he clearly can’t get enough of Grace. The first time that he describes her, the language that Tess has Isaac use is so beautiful that if I were the swooning sort that well –
I would’ve been swooning.
Isaac takes in all of Grace, from the spirals of her hair and the darkness of her skin right down to how, as he watches her move across the stage he thinks to himself that, “she held herself like a dancer, and when she moved, she moved like a queen.”
Look, I’m just going to scream about how perfect that moment is when he first gets a good look at Grace and is like “dang”.
This is why, as I started reading my copy in the back of the English department, I kept flagging down people I thought would be receptive and demanding that they give the book a try when it comes out this month.
Because about this book works for me and I want everyone in the department and all of my friends to understand that they should just read the book and fall in love the way I did.
There’s a lot going on in That Potent Alchemy. Of course, there’s the burgeoning love story between main characters Grace Owen and Isaac Caird as they fumble their way into a relationship. But there’s also a bit of the thriller to the plot as Isaac’s plans to win a bet and wow Grace with his talents in the same moment are constantly stolen and sabotaged.
I was on the edge of my seat the entire time and only part of that was due to the “when will they gently touch mouths and junk” feelings I kept having.
But there are also other really great things that the series has going for it.
One of my favorite things about That Potent Alchemy is how Tess Bowery writes Isaac’s family. Isaac’s family is adorable and I love the relationship that his parents have with one another. In fact, if we were to ~magically~ get a short story or something about the elder Caird’s lives prior to parenthood (or something centering Mama Caird’s activism and overall badassery), I would probably cry and bake cakes for everyone I know.
I also found myself focusing a bit intensely Lucy, one of the actresses and a sort-of friend to Grace whose dreams of stardom basically bite her in the butt. You’ll find out more about Lucy throughout the book and you’ll join me in frowning intensely at her, but for me there’s also something about her that I was really drawn to. She’s a secondary character and one that’s hard to like, but I definitely saw something in her characterization that made me want more of her.
On top of falling for these well-crafted characters, the descriptions of stagecraft were beyond amazing. I honestly felt that I was able to visualize everything from the performers on stage to Isaac and the other people working behind the scenes to make everything perfect. If you’re like me and a sucker for ridiculously rich detail, there’s a scene Grace’s performing is described that left me breathless. It was that glorious.
I do think that Grace’s genderfluidity could’ve received a bit more focus. On one hand, I definitely identified with how it was just a thing, an aspect of her identity that was just there. While I am ridiculous about my asexuality and constantly talk about myself in relation to queerness, my gender-whatever is just… there. I don’t talk about it but I’m experiencing it.
So it felt like my experience but I also felt that for someone who didn’t have my experiences, they might’ve felt confused about what being genderfluid meant for Grace.
Overall, That Potent Alchemy has made its way into my heart with lovely characters, tense drama, and some of the hottest sex scenes I’ve ever read.
It’s a historical romance novel that manages to balance necessary and significant diversity (with regard to queerness and race) with a lovely and historically accurate setting that I’ve never seen before. The vividness of the language that Tess Bowery uses to bring Grace and Isaac to life is exciting and satisfying. I loved that That Potent Alchemy felt like taking a literal step backwards in time while not being alienating to me as a Black reader.
If you’re a fan of historical fiction (or trying to get into it for the first time), consider checking out That Potent Alchemy and the other two books in Tess Bowery’s Treading the Boards series. It’s amazingly written, queer, and way closer to an accurate depiction of life in a Regency romance than the norm.