Interesting mashup of historical fiction and fantasy

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I was provided an ARC of this book via Netgalley, all opinions are my own. I did end up listening to most of this book via audio via Hoopla in an effort to get my review up relatively close to release data. This book was released in early October, so my review is about a month late.

This book is a mashup of historical fiction and fantasy. It has an interesting magic system based on alchemy and historical alchemical practices. If you have read Baker's previous works, they are geared toward the young adult reader, however there are some dark themes and her work is not devoid of gore and violence. There is also a bit of a horror element to this much like there was with The Keeper of Night. There is a bit of a romance element, but it wasn't front and center and I didn't really feel the chemistry between the love interests.

This follows Fan Zilan, an aspiring alchemist from poor family and a poor village. Zilan was adopted by her aunt and uncle and she wants nothing more than to become a Royal Alchemist to send money home to support them and help them rise from poverty. She and her two cousins who she thinks of as her siblings, must travel to the city of Chang'an and take their civil service exams in the hopes of rising to a higher station and sending money home to their parents. Her cousins want to become scholars and Zilan who is self-taught wants to learn everything she can from the other alchemists. Upon arriving in the city they quickly learn that they can't trust anyone and that something strange is afoot at the palace.

I thought the characters were very immature at times. Zilan was insecure and reckless, then guilty about the outcomes. The Crown Prince, Hong, is also quite immature despite being next in line to be emperor and constantly in danger. I think younger readers will connect with these characters a lot more than I did. The world building was very well done and Baker did a great job on that front describing the alchemy and the monsters. There was quite a bit of court intrigue and she did a good job painting the picture of what was going on inside and outside the palace.

This does leave off on a bit of a cliffhanger, which sets us up for book two nicely. I do feel that we got closure for the most part with the storyline for book one, but this does leave us with some open questions on where the empire is headed and what Zilan will do next. I look forward to seeing what happens next.