Title: THE APOTHECARY’S CURSE
Author: Barbara Barnett
Publisher: Pyr Books
Genre: Historical Fiction/Gaslamp Fantasy/Urban Fantasy
This Bram Stoker Award-nominated urban fantasy mixes alchemy and genetics as a gentleman physician and a brilliant apothecary try to prevent a pharmaceutical company from exploiting the book that made them immortal centuries ago.
In 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?
I was excited to read the The Apothecary's Curse by Barbara Barnett for a couple of reasons. One, I love all things Victorian. I am fascinated by the time period and I love books and movies that are set during that point. And two, I am a very amateur herbalist. I love that plants can become medicines and I've been trying to learn everything I can about how to use them. So this book seemed a perfect one to read.
The story is told in two different time periods, jumping back and forth frequently between the two. At first I thought that would be confusing, even with the headings at the beginnings of the chapters (because I sometimes miss those), but it isn't. The story moves pretty fluidly between modern day and Victorian era.
There are two main characters in this story. Although it begins with Simon seeming to be the principle, Gaelan ends up, to me, being the more interesting and fleshed out. He's certainly the more sympathetic of the two.
Simon has lost his wife, yes, in a horrifying and terrible way. But he manages to summon her ghost some time after she's passed during a seance and refuses to will her away so that her spirit can rest in peace. She's amiable at first, loving, like in life. But the longer she's forced to endure when she'd rather be at rest, the angrier she gets until she finally tells Simon, more or less, that if he thinks she's going to spend eternity with him after he finally manages to die he's crazy.
Gaelan quite literally has his wife and his child torn from him during a time when he seems to be the only one who can help them both. Never to see them again. Alive or in death. Despite his tragedy he manages to find love again after enduring years of unending and unimaginable torture that would break the soul and spirit of any other man. Only to have to leave her behind when he goes to America. Knowing that while she would grow old as life intends, he would not, and they both would come to resent one another.
Anne is a character introduced late in the scheme of things, but she finds her place in it all pretty quickly. She's got a good moral compass about her and she brings life back to Gaelan when he seems to have been just floating on, surviving day after day. She's fierce and determined and I think she is a wonderful addition to it all.
The whole thing ends up suspenseful in a way I had not expected. The story jumps back and forth in time in the most perfect way to set about the climax. I have not reviewed, or finished a book for that matter, in what seems like a very long time, and I think this was the perfect one to jump back in with. It's exciting and tragic and as I said before, I absolutely love all things Victorian. It's a heartbreaker, but definitely worth a read.
Barbara Barnett is author of the Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel The Apothecary’s Curse ( Pyr Books), an imprint of Prometheus Books. She is also Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics Magazine (blogcritics.org), an online magazine of pop culture, politics and more, for which she has also contributed nearly 1,000 essays, reviews, and interviews over the past decade. She published in-depth interviews with writers, actors and producers, including Jane Espenson, Katie Jacobs, Doris Egan, David Goodman, Jesse Spencer, Jennifer Morrison, Robert Carlyle, Lana Parilla, David Strathairn, Russel Friend, Garrett Lerner, Elie Atie, Wesley Snipes, and many, many more.
Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras: THE Unofficial Guide to House, M.D. is a critically-acclaimed and quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show.
Always a pop-culture and sci-fi geek, Barbara was raised on a steady diet of TV (and TV dinners), but she always found her way to the tragic antiheroes and misunderstood champions, whether on TV, in the movies or in literature. (In other words, Spock, not Kirk; Han Solo, not Luke Skywalker!) It was inevitable that she would have to someday create one of her own.
She is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA’s HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as “The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture,” “The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes,” “The Hidden History of Science Fiction,” and “Our Passion for Disaster (Movies).” Most recently, she gave a lecture at MENSA “The Conan Doyle Conundrum,” which explored the famous author’s life-long belief in fairies.
Barbara is available for signings and other author appearances as well as radio, print and television interviews. She also loves to speak at writers and other conferences! Feel free to contact her directly! She is represented by Katharine Sands at the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency in New York City. You can reach Katharine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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My dear friend, hold fast the doctrine: when all impossibilities are eliminated, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Nothing could be so improbable that I must now and forever address you as Sir Arthur!”
Dr. Joseph Bell stood at the head of the dining table before twenty assembled guests, offering a robust toast to the guest of honor, his student and friend, the newly knighted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in London for the first time since the honor had been bestowed on him. His confidante Jean Elizabeth Leckie was at his side.
“Do tell, Sir Arthur,” Wilder said with a giggle, “is it not true that our dear Joseph is in actuality your Sherlock Holmes?”
“Indeed not, Wilder!” The author twisted his mustache a bit more at each mention of Holmes’s name.
Miss Leckie patted Conan Doyle’s arm tenderly. “My dear, your mustache shall soon be as fine as a strand of silk. Besides, you well know he is! They even smoke the same sort of pipe!” The entire table joined her in laughter, despite Conan Doyle’s protestations.
“Ah,” interrupted Joseph, coming to Conan Doyle’s rescue. “Alas, I do not share Holmes’s preference for cocaine, nor does my mind crave the constant stimulation of work. I am quite at peace come Sunday afternoons with nothing to do but read the Times.”
“I wish my consulting detective could rest in peace.” Conan Doyle scowled at Wilder, as she inquired when a new Holmes story would be published. “Did you not read ‘The Final Problem,’ my dear Wilder? Holmes died at Reichenbach Falls! However, since no one will allow him to be at his rest”—he sighed dramatically—“I can tonight announce a new adventure for the Strand come next year. ‘The Empty House,’ it is called!” Conan Doyle laughed, yet it was darkened with an unmistakable note of vexation.
“But how should you have him come back, Sir Arthur?” Cranford inquired. “If he is indeed, as you say, dead?”
“Do let us change the subject, Cranford.” Conan Doyle lifted his glass, taking a long draught of his wine, his eyes closed.
Miss Leckie smiled. “Oh! I’ve something! Have you heard of that apothecary? Lentine is his name. In Covent Garden. The line to enter his shop goes on and on. Can you imagine?”
“And why might that be, Leckie?” Conan Doyle asked. “Why, his amazing Reanimating ftercuric Tonic, of course! To hear his patter, the medicine ‘shall restore life, even in the event of sudden death!’ Can you imagine? An apothecary, of all ludicrous things!”
Mr. Cranford laughed. “They should hang them all, the thieving rogues. I’ve never met one I can trust, always trying to hawk the latest patent medicines.”
Gaelan Erceldoune glared at ftiss Leckie, his dark, mirthless eyes hard as basalt. Beside him, his companion, Joseph’s cousin Dr. Simon Bell, laid a calming hand on his sleeve, an urgent plea to forbear; Gaelan snapped his arm away.
With a peevish edge to his voice, Gaelan steered the topic from the dubiousness of the apothecary trade. “What if your consulting detective cannot die?”
Conan Doyle stared him down. “Whatever do you mean—cannot die?”
Simon worried a loose thread in his linen napkin, his hands knotted with tension.
“Yes,” Gaelan continued, ignoring Simon’s disquiet. “Well, after Reichenbach, Holmes is, of course, presumed dead, his body not found. Unsurprising, given the terrain, but I assume your new story finds him quite well. ftight you not suggest, therefore, that Holmes’s invulner- ability extends beyond the intellectual—that he, in fact, cannot die by any natural means, improbable though it may seem? Already, you have toyed with the notion—your Sorsa in ‘The Ring of Thoth.’ You needn’t ever be explicit of course; allow your readers to speculate and draw their own conclusions. Holmes’s devotees will be so elated that none shall even question how it is possible.”
He mimed a vaudeville marquee with his hands high above his head, commanding the attention of the entire table. “The immortal Sherlock Holmes lives on in a new series.” At once self-conscious, Gaelan thrust his deformed left hand into his trouser pocket. “He’ll live forever, by Jove, your creation shall. Perhaps long after you, sir, have gone to your grave.”
Conan Doyle’s enthusiasm seemed tepid at best. But Gaelan pressed further. “As well, do you not imagine, sir, whilst giving new life to your most popular creation, you might also draw upon your truest passion—the supernatural world? Would that not, as it were, be killing two birds with one stone?”
“Ha!” Conan Doyle pointed an accusatory finger at Gaelan. “You, sir, sound too much like my publisher.”
Joseph broke in. “Please, ladies and gentlemen, let us go through to the drawing room. We might continue our conversations there in more comfort—”
But Conan Doyle was not to be stopped. “In a moment, Dr. Bell,” he said, holding up his hand to forestall the company. “I’ve a question for ftr. Erceldoune. Our dear Joseph made mention that you are an apothecary?”
Simon backed farther into his chair, cursing himself that he had disclosed even this small fact to his ever-curious cousin. He twisted his napkin, eyes pleading with Gaelan to be still.
Gaelan leaned toward Conan Doyle, a vague threat in the set of his jaw. “That I am, but why is that of concern to you or anyone here this evening? Do you mean to put me in my place as amongst the same company as Lentine, whom Miss Leckie has just now vilified—and with ample cause, I might add?”
“I mean no disrespect, nor to dishonor you amongst the fine physicians at this table. . . . I am curious, and that is all.” Conan Doyle paused a moment, as if to consider something. “I understand, sir, that many apothecaries in eras past were adept in alchemy, even magic.”
Gaelan settled back into his chair by a degree, coiled as a snake. “That, sir, may have been more the case, say centuries ago—a blurring of the lines. However, Sir Arthur, I possess no personal knowledge, for example, of any apothecary or druggist nowadays claiming to hold in his hands the secrets of life through alchemical abracadabra, if that is what you are suggesting. As for myself, I am quite well tutored in chem- istry and toxicology, and a disciple of Paracelsus. ftany of his dicta still ring true for me. Sola dosis facit venenum . . . the dose makes the poison. Paracelsus coined that in the sixteenth century—today it is an axiom of modern pharmacy. He was both an apothecary and an alchemist— and a physician. I would consider myself in esteemed company to asso- ciate myself with his understanding of alchemy. He had neither desire to make gold from lead, nor to find the elusive lapis philosophorum, but only to reveal the medicinal science it concealed by its art.”
Conan Doyle leaned forward confidentially, as if the rest of the company had vanished. “I have no desire, sir, to offend you. Forgive me if my questions seem more interrogation than polite dinner conversa- tion. I am first and foremost a journalist, but my ardent interest is per- sonal and much to do with my curiosity about the occult, as you may have guessed. I am quite sad to think about how much of the ancient arts were lost or have gone into hiding, along with their knowledge. Our ideas must be as broad as nature if they are to interpret nature, and if ideas—no matter how unusual they seem to our modern sensibili- ties—are destroyed and visionaries burnt either literally or metaphori- cally at the stake, we stand not a chance. And by the way, sir. I must aver that you are only one of a very few to have read ‘Thoth.’”
“But to your point regarding our natural fear of the . . . unusual
. . . On that, sir, at least,” Gaelan said, “we might agree.”
“Let us, then, if we may, Sir Arthur,” Joseph repeated, clearing his throat, “go through to the drawing room. ftiss Leckie, would you do us the honor of leading the way?”
“But of course,” she agreed, patting Conan Doyle’s hand affectionately. “Shall we, my dear?” She rose, and the rest of the company followed her from the room.
Gaelan and Conan Doyle found themselves in a secluded corner of the large drawing room as the other guests mingled. Simon stood nearby, gesturing with growing disquietude that they should leave, and quite soon. Gaelan turned his back on him as Conan Doyle leaned in again.
“By the by, sir, I do recognize your unusual name—Erceldoune—I have come across it on occasion in my research into the Otherworld—”
“Indeed. Where the fae folk rule. I’ve heard of an Erceldoune associated with legends of old, a certain Thomas Learmont de Erceldoune, a relationship with Tuatha de Danann, the—”
“Fairy folk, Sir Arthur?” Gaelan managed a laugh. “You, sir, hold me in exalted company, and I am sorry to disappoint you, however—” “It is said that this man Erceldoune had a book possessing great power, given him by Airmid herself, Celtic goddess of healing, a gift for
his act of kindness. Have you not heard the tale?”
“My family, old though it may be, Sir Arthur, boasts neither connection with the goddess Airmid nor any of her folk—the Tuatha de Danann, if indeed they ever existed. Besides, was not Airmid an Irish fairy? And I am, as are you, sir, of Scottish blood.”
Gaelan glanced around the room again, finding Simon’s anxious eyes beseeching him to end the exchange. “We’d best join the rest of the company. I see my dear friend Simon is quite unsettled, and we ought soon set off for—”
“It is a book of great healing,” Conan Doyle continued. “All the diseases of the world—and their cures—held in a singular volume, said to be written by her very hand.”
Gaelan paused, a petulant sigh escaping his lips. “I cannot say I can recall its mention, even amongst family lore.” His lips tightened into a tense line as he stood. “Now if you will excuse me, sir, I grow tired and fear it is time Dr. Simon Bell and I return to his flat.”