Barbara Barnett – The Apothecary’s Curse

barabrabarnett-theapothecaryscurseIn 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 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?

The Apothecary’s Curse is Barbara Barnett’s debut novel. When I read the synopsis for it, I was immediately intrigued, as it reminded me a little of Deb Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, because of the mixture of alchemy and the past and current timelines. Once read, The Apothecary’s Curse turned out to be quite different, but an equally fabulous read. I loved the book; its characters and its theme captured my heart and of course I couldn’t resist the fact that one of the mysteries at its heart is an ancient manuscript. 

The story is told in separate timelines, which each chapter heading telling the reader when and were they are. Yet despite their temporal separation, the timelines are closely intertwined. Overall, there are four main story lines; the first is the story of how Simon came to be immortal and how he griefs for his wife. The second is the story of how he and Gaelan reconnected and became forever linked through Simon’s sister Eleanor. The third brings us to the current day and follows them on their quest to find the manuscript, undo their immortality, and find peace in their fate. And the fourth and final one is Anne’s story and how she comes to enter Gaelan’s life. These four are braided together to create a wonderful whole that slowly reveals the complexity of its characters and theme.

To me the book’s main theme seemed to be love—both looking at the many different sorts of love people feel and the way love can both save and destroy lives. On a very basic level it’s romantic love that gets showcased, the love between Simon and his wife Sophie, between Gaelan and Eleanor, and the powerful attraction between Gaelan and Anne. The friendship between Simon and Gaelan is also a sort of love, even if it is often rather grudging and long silences between them. But beyond all the forms of love that concern interpersonal relationships this book breathes the love of learning that Simon, Gaelan, and Anne share, as — in their own sick and twisted way — do Dr. Handley and Lord Braithwaite. And, despite everything he’s been through, there is Gaelan’s love of life and all of the pleasures it brings.

In this there is a great contrast between Gaelan and Simon. If we contrast Gaelan’s reaction to the death of his wife and son with that of Simon, we see almost an opposite reaction of saviour versus destruction. Gaelan is driven to try and rescue those in need around him and to cure the sick he meets, while Simon descends into incapacitation; he’s literally almost driven mad with grief. And where Simon is forever bound to his love for Sophie, Gaelan is capable of forming new attachments. Over the course of the narrative both men learn that love can also mean letting go of the object of our affection. The need to let go to move on is a lesson that resonates throughout the novel.

Gaelan is a compelling protagonist. I enjoyed the Holmesian vibe to his character, with Simon being his literal Doctor Watson. While they both have interesting story arcs, I was more drawn to Gaelan’s story. Possibly because it was more dramatic, possibly because Gaelan on the whole is a more hopeful person. Gaelan loses and finds himself again, and despite everything he never loses his zest for life and new experiences. Simon’s story did have me in tears though, so perhaps his character got to me more than I thought for most of the book. The secondary characters are great as well. I really loved Eleanor, I thought she was fabulous and so strong and independent, especially given her circumstances. Anne was also an appealing character, whose internal struggle with doing what is right and what would satisfy her curiosity was interesting. Especially when it comes to her douchebag ex-fiancé and the company they both work for, Transdiff, an evil big pharma corporation.

The Apothecary’s Curse was a wonderful read, featuring compelling characters, an interesting theme and awesome cameos from historical figures. The book is a self-contained story, so no waiting another year or two to get the entire story. The ending to the book was absolutely perfect. Barbara Barnett’s debut was one of my favourites so far this year. Let’s hope it’s the first of my books to come for Barnett.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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