I really enjoyed McCoy's Queen of Roses, so I decided to buy her Lord Alchemist Duology as well. Herb-Witch turned out to be incredibly difficult to get into, although I did eventually find my footing in this new world. I became invested in the characters...and then the ending happened. To say it was disappointing is putting it mildly. I'll have to read Book 2 to be sure, but so far I'd have to say that this book is not for romance fans, despite the "romance" tag I've seen applied to it.
Iathor, the Lord Alchemist, first meets Kessa Herbsman in a prison cell. She has been accused of disminding a moneylender with one of her potions. Iathor uses a truth potion on her and realizes that she is an immune, someone on whom most potions have little or no effect. There are only two known immunes at the moment: Iathor (the Lord Alchemist is required to be immune) and his heir and brother, Iasen. Iathor has been searching for an immune woman for decades, because he must either marry an immune woman or take a dramswife, a woman who has drunk the dramsman's draught in order to make her completely loyal to him. The thought of a wife who has no choice but to be by his side horrifies him.
Ugly, half-barbarian Kessa never expected to receive a marriage proposal from anyone, much less the Lord Alchemist, but she's not about to fall gratefully into his arms. She has no idea what it means to be immune or how rare it is. All she wants is to take care of her sickly foster sister and to be left alone. Iathor attempts to woo Kessa by feeding her, taking care of her when she's ill or in pain, and generally making her life easier. Even if she decides not to be his wife, he'd at least like to make her his student.
Here's how I thought the story would go: Kessa would agree to become Iathor's student. She'd gradually make friends with Nicia, another trainee. She'd work with Iathor to stop the activities of the gray watch and discover who had dosed the moneylender prior to her meeting with him. She'd eventually come to trust Iathor with her secrets and her family, and, finally, she'd agreed to marry him. What could have just been a marriage of convenience would end up being a love match. Book 2 would feature Kessa trying to adjust to life among the wealthy and titled, Iathor adjusting to Kessa's family, and both of them facing Iasen's hatred of Kessa's half-barbarian heritage.
Some things went the way I thought they would. Others, not so much.
At first, I was on Kessa's side. Iathor seemed to accept it as a given that Kessa would agree to marry him. Never mind that this would turn her world upside down. Never mind that her immunity meant that the children he wanted her to bear might kill her. I wasn't entirely sure about how immunity worked – a potion designed to heal Kessa's arm worked, for instance, but most pain-relievers didn't. At the very least, giving birth would be awful. What if there were complications during her pregnancy, and her immunity prevented potions from helping her?
Iathor's accommodating attitude and Kessa's intense prickliness and bucket-loads of paranoia eventually put me more on Iathor's side. She snarled at him at every opportunity, despite the fact that he did almost nothing to deserve it. It was very difficult to like her, and I began to wish that Laita, Kessa's foster sister, was the immune main character instead. Kessa's resistance to Iathor dragged on an on, while the much more practical, mercenary, and charming Laita would have seen an opportunity for her and her family to move up in the world and would have cheerfully grabbed it.
I could imagine Iathor marrying Laita for political reasons and the immune children she might give him, Laita marrying him for his political power and money, and their relationship either blossoming into love or not. Either way, it would have felt better than what Kessa did at the end of this book. Kessa told Nicia not to feign immunity because it would be cruel to Iathor, but I felt that what she did was almost as cruel. Not to mention possibly unnecessary, if she had only unbent enough to finally trust Iathor even a little.
McCoy went way, way overboard with Kessa, both in terms of her prickliness towards Iathor and her ugliness. Readers were reminded over and over again that Kessa's eyes were hideous – the color of dog-vomit, or rotting herbs, or dead leaves. She hid them both because she was self-conscious about them about them and because the full force of her gaze could be effective as a weapon. The bit that really got me was that her own foster siblings flinched away from her gaze. Unless her eyes were magically repellent, which I don't think they were, this was too much.
I had a lot of issues with McCoy's writing. I had to go back and reread certain earlier parts of the book several times because details necessary for understanding those bits weren't revealed until much later. The rhythm of characters' speech and thoughts (especially Kessa's) sometimes made things harder to follow than they should have been. I spent the first quarter of the book trying to find my footing and didn't truly feel sure about my knowledge of the world until I was halfway through.
In general, I felt that the story would have been much improved had an editor gone through and tightened certain parts up and placed some of the world explanations earlier in the book. Considering how much fun I had with Queen of Roses, I had expected to love this book. While I liked several of the characters and their interactions, enjoyed Kessa's alchemy training, and wanted to see how and whether Iathor could win Kessa over, adjusting to this world took more work than it should have, and the ending wasn't worth it. If I didn't already own Book 2, I don't know that I could bring myself to buy it. However, since I do own it, I'll read it and see if the duology as a whole is worth the trouble, even if this first book was a disappointment.
A combined cast list and glossary is included at the end of the book. In my opinion, the glossary should have been listed at the beginning. It might have made the first quarter of the book less confusing.
- The Fire Rose (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Aspects of Herb-Witch - the training, slight romance, and scientific approach to what is basically magic - reminded me of The Fire Rose. I've written about this book.
- A College of Magics (book) by Caroline Stevermer - I read this over 10 years ago and can barely remember anything about it, but for some reason it popped into my head as being a possible read-alike for Herb-Witch. I remember there being a bit of magic and politics, a heroine who wasn't very pretty, and a little bit of romance.
- Dragonsong (book) by Anne McCaffrey - Another book starring a heroine who has great potential but is initially lacking in the training to make use of that potential. In this case, the heroine is a musician, with a father who doesn't value music.
- Earthrise (e-book) by M.C.A. Hogarth - I'm adding this to the list primarily because of its prickly heroine - those who liked Kessa may enjoy Reese. Although this science fiction book is fairly different from Herb-Witch, Hogarth, like McCoy, creates very vivid characters and worlds and may appeal to fans of Herb-Witch. I've written about this book.