A stunning YA historical fantasy

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Long live angry, ruthless girls.

The Scarlet Alchemist was highly recommended to me by the lovely Poppywarphan and I am delighted to say this book doesn't disappoint!! It's a fantastic blend of Chinese historical palace drama (with great historically-accurate detail!), alchemy, sociopolicial commentary, and topped off with a truly fascinating heroine and her absolutely hapless, pathetic puppy of a love interest. Although over a month has passed since I read this gem of a book, it occupies my thoughts to this day and I'm dying to get my hands on the sequel.

While I'm always a bit hesitant to pick up books advertising "strong badass ruthless etc." FMCs, Zilan is truly brutal without losing herself to violence. Her feminine rage is justified, and not just because she's a female. Baker does an absolutely *phenomenal* job of adding nuance to Zilan's character through the intersectionality of her identity: female, poor, ethnically minoritized, and biracial, her truly ruthless drive to survive and excel felt raw, honest, and powerful. Never once is it trivialized or used as a flimsy plot device to justify her violence for the sake of being a badass. Zilan has been hurt over and over, and while it can get violent, she never slips into cliched tropes. Zilan's character voice is so strong and made me immediately connect and identify with her, and I think Baker's writing truly shines in the first-person POV narration.

Despite the plot being very driven by Zilan (though I'd hesitate to call it a pure character-driven novel), the side characters were all fun additions and lent some fantastic depth to the world. I particularly loved the relationship between Zilan and her cousin/siblings—give me more positive representation of adoptive siblings in YA, please! This one is a shining example. The love interest Li Hong was such a fantastic breath of fresh air. He's so unserious without being ignorant, pathetic without being grating, and lovable without being one-dimensional. Though I found his disillusionment with privilege and romantic relationship with Zilan a bit rushed, he was such a lovable character despite his limited page time that I couldn't help but giggle and swoon a bit. That being said, I'd love to learn more about him in the sequel.

The only thing that's preventing me from giving this book 5/5 is the slightly rushed ending—things came together so quickly compared to the rest of the book that the pacing suffered. I'd love to see the consequences explored a little more instead of being wrapped up as nice and tidy as they were. Hopefully this is rectified in book 2, but I think book 1 can easily stand by itself. It's not enough for me though—I want more stories in this world!

Easily one of my favorite books of the year, though be warned: this one pushes the limits of "upper" YA. It's bloody and slightly gory (some mild body horror), so check out the CW if you can!

4.75/5 stars
Thank you to Inkyard Press and BookishFirst for the early finished copy! All thoughts and opinions are my own.