“Progress was never meant to be stinted, and even failures weren’t to be destroyed.”
Her vengeance. His vision.
Ari lost everything she once loved when the Five Guilds’ resistance fell to the Dragon King. Now, she uses her unparalleled gift for clockwork machinery in tandem with notoriously unscrupulous morals to contribute to a thriving underground organ market. There isn’t a place on Loom that is secure from the engineer turned thief, and her magical talents are sold to the highest bidder as long as the job defies their Dragon oppressors.
Cvareh would do anything to see his sister usurp the Dragon King and sit on the throne. His family’s house has endured the shame of being the lowest rung in the Dragons’ society for far too long. The Alchemist Guild, down on Loom, may just hold the key to putting his kin in power, if Cvareh can get to them before the Dragon King’s assassins.
When Ari stumbles upon a wounded Cvareh, she sees an opportunity to slaughter an enemy and make a profit off his corpse. But the Dragon sees an opportunity to navigate Loom with the best person to get him where he wants to go.
He offers her the one thing Ari can’t refuse: A wish of her greatest desire, if she brings him to the Alchemists of Loom.
CW: violence (including gun violence), gore (including eye gore), graphic injury, medical scenes, loss of a loved one
Okay, okay, I’ll confess: The Alchemists of Loom has been sitting on my Kindle for probably two years now. Maybe three. I bought it when it was on sale super cheap, thinking that it would be super cool, and then the realities of being a college student whacked me over the head with a baseball bat made of deadlines and anxiety.
HOWEVER. I am no longer a student with deadlines (anxiety’s still here, though lol), which means I finally picked up this book that was promising dragons and steampunk wonder and adventure!
Turns it out is has…two of those things? But let’s start from the top, just for clarity.
The Alchemists of Loom follows Arianna, Cvareh, and Florence as they hurry toward the Alchemists of Loom, trying to outpace Cvareh’s pursuers. Cvareh is the outsider of the trio, barely trusted and only tagging along for the wish he’ll grant to Ari if she fulfills his request to bring him to the Alchemists. Throw in some dangerously powerful pursuers, steampunk inventions capable of knocking your socks off (or taking your head off your shoulders, if we’re being honest about their capacity for violent explosions), and magic that works in tandem with gears and all the other metallic guts of a steampunk world, and you end up with an adventure in a really unique setting.
You do not, however, end up with traditional dragons. Hell, you don’t even have humans. When Dragons are mentioned in The Alchemists of Loom, that capital letter is 100% intentional, because they’re a humanoid species with magic relegated to certain body parts, and those certain body parts are colorful and draconic in appearance (pointy ears, claws, etc). Meanwhile, the Fenthri are the other humanoid race, with grayish skin and hair ranging along a grayscale. Humanoids, but no humans. And no dragons. It really makes for another world entirely, not something Earth-adjacent.
I actually really liked the Guild system Loom has, too (though it’s certainly detrimental in its current form, the restricted version imposed by the ruling Dragons). There are five Guilds, each with a particular specialty and an associated tattoo, and it explains how a great deal of Loom’s transportation and economy functions. Plus, it has the Ravens Guild, which is mostly a bunch of folks who like to go FAST. Here’s hoping they feature more prominently in the next two books, because I want more of their steampunk speed!
I also loved that the book had a map and a glossary, but in the back of the book. If you wanted the extra info for some help orienting yourself, it was available, but you could also go through the book just fine and get that info at the end. And naturally, I loved soaking it up at the end, seeing the world’s layout and absorbing all the little details in one cohesive place even though I’d gotten a grip on most of them throughout the book.
And above all, I really liked Florence. Though she doesn’t have Arianna’s sheer skill or Cvareh’s Dragon magic, she has a steadfast determination to do the right thing, and she is in this constant pursuit of knowledge. She wants better for herself, and for the world, and if she’s a bit of an idealist, so be it. It’s really refreshing to find this character in fantasy that sees the good in everyone, and I can’t wait to see her role in the series grow. Florence is too determined, too clever, to do anything but come out on top.
That said, there were some features of The Alchemists of Loom that fell a little flat for me, which is a bummer after I waited this long to read it. For one, beyond Florence, I was actually neutral or disinterested in the main characters. Cvareh struck me as dull except when he acted out, which mostly made him irritating, and while Arianna does some sweet flips and stuff, I didn’t feel like there was any proverbial meat on her bones until the last quarter of the book, when the pacing suddenly ramped up and abandoned the travel-adventure style approach for character conflict and set-up for the dangers of the next book. (And I will be fair: I did like the ending, and I loved the moral complications introduced, especially regarding Arianna’s history.)
I also found myself looking at a bit of rocky queer inclusion that gave me pause. While queerness in Loom is regarded as normal, we get only two queer characters, one of whom is dead, and the other one left emotionally closed off in her wake. I certainly hope there are more queer members of the cast as the series goes on, but as the first book goes, it was very visibly lacking.
But there was also a point when Cvareh, with his textbook notions of Loom, mentions that sometimes Fenthri folks will participate in same-gender unions, and then proceeds to frame those unions as pointless because they can’t bear children from them. And I genuinely can’t tell if that’s supposed to be Cvareh’s limited, stiff Dragon worldview coloring his knowledge of the Fenthri, or if it’s the author’s thoughtless framing showing, or if it’s supposed to say something about cultural values in Loom. Regardless, it didn’t sit right with me on multiple levels. Are there no trans people in Loom? Is shelling out kids in this bleak world so important that unions for love are second best? What about people who can’t have kids for whatever reason?
It’s a tired thing to interrogate, and since this book is from 2016, I am a little cautious going forward. I have the first book in Elisa Kova’s Air Awakens series also on my Kindle (from, like, two years ago, shhhhhh), and I’m hoping that it doesn’t push the same ideas forward. Plus, I want to read the rest of what happens in Loom, and I’m hoping there’s a better, more nuanced approach waiting ahead.
And for the usual cherry on top, though maybe you’re tired of hearing me say it, the romance was boring. Just plain old dull. If I can’t appreciate the characters individually, I’m not likely to love them as a couple, and in this case, they just don’t work together in a way that has me curious to see their relationship develop. That, however, tends to be one of my more personal gripes, and it’s not always a judgment on quality, so take this last tidbit with a grain of salt.
Overall, the world of Loom is loaded with magic and fueled by steam, primed for adventure, and better yet, revolution. As the first of the trilogy stands, though, it’s not quite the masterpiece I was hoping for, and I’m somewhat hesitant about approaching the sequels, though I’ll do it anyway, as I tend to do. We all know I’m horrible about DNFing things, right? We are aware of this?
But if you like steampunk and brand new worlds with danger and heists and travel, you may consider giving The Alchemists of Loom a try!