Regency romances bring to mind the racially homogeneous and strictly gendered world of the Ton, as portrayed by Heyer and so many of her successors. But That Potent Alchemy was a Regency romance in the new mould, featuring POC, working class and genderqueer characters. It was engaging and touching, and I really enjoyed it.
When the Surrey Theatre finds out that a rival establishment is putting on the same comedy they were planning to perform for the Season, they have to stage another production at short notice, thrusting actress Grace into the world of ballet. As an child prodigy, she danced the stages of Europe to line her father's pockets, and strapping her pointe shoes brings that experience of male exploitation to the fore, along with feelings of wrongness about her female body.
Isaac, the stage machinist, is fascinated by Grace, who switches between breeches and dresses, and who has no patron. But, for him, the stakes on the new production are higher than ever: he's bet a month's wages against his counterpart at the other theatre as to who can come up with the most spectacular effects for his production. As the Surrey's production of Macbeth (complete with ballet!) gets closer to opening night, Isaac knows that he wants nothing more than to be at Grace's side, but first he'll have to prove to Grace that she can trust him.
That Potent Alchemy was very much about trust and boundaries, and both themes were written in such an affecting and beautiful way. I was a bit wary of Isaac at first, because of his persistence in pursuing Grace, but the way that he respected Grace's needs and boundaries quickly won me over, as did other little things that demonstrated his lack of toxic masculinity, like this exchange:
“Ask your sister how half-grown I am,” Thilby leered, and the very notion of Thilby ever getting within arm’s reach of Isaac’s sister, never mind having the chance to despoil her, was so absurd that Isaac laughed along with him.
“She already told me—how d’you think I know?” (9%)But this doesn't mean he's an infallible feminist man. He stuffs up, but when he does, he either addresses his mistake immediately and corrects it:
"...you complete me.” She recoiled, as though his answer offended her.
"No, never say that! I’m not a rib, to be put back into place in someone else’s chest.” Oops.
“A fair point,” he conceded. “You are certainly no one’s spare parts.” Isaac sat for a minute, rethought the words he had been going to say. (98%)Or he apologies, grovels and says the right things when the misguided nature of his actions become clear to him (no example here, just read the book!). Marriage brings up conflicted feelings for Grace because of her gender fluidity, but Isaac gives her enough space to sift through them, saying that he'll wait, or if she doesn't want to get married, then that's fine too. For her part, Grace was a very relatable heroine, with whom I could empathise. Her experiences of being a workhorse for her father at such a young age, and losing her family when she broke ties with him, has made her strong, no-nonsense and assertive, but also vulnerable and starved for affection.
Grace's gender fluidity was neither gratuitous plot-point nor put aside in any way. Consistently, throughout the book, the reader is reminded of the way that Grace relates to her body and her birth-assigned gender:
A man’s face had looked back at her in the mirror this morning (3%)
“Some days the world is only right if I move through it as a man.” And some days it seemed just as wrong. Those were days when frills and silks were called for, setting her curls with pale ribbons and taking long walks with Meg. (34%)
There would be no escape from the wrongness with a child inside; no way to see anything but a swollen belly and breasts that didn’t belong to her. (39%)
It was hard to see where his body ended and hers began, his cock rising from the space between them. It could be hers, this way, a missing limb slotted back where it should have been. (43%)
Half the time she wasn’t a girl inside at all, and that certainly wasn’t what your average fellow was searching for. (97%)
However, some reviewers on Goodreads - some of them genderqueer - felt like Grace's gender identity was not acknowledged enough. I'm reading from a non-queer perspective, so my judgement here is not the soundest, and should be taken as secondary. One or two reviewers speak of a lack of internal understanding or insight from Grace about her gender identity, but I wonder if some were also referring to something that I thought was odd: Grace - to my memory - never outright expresses her gender fluidity to Isaac. He accepts that, some days, she is going to wear breeches, and that she doesn't want children, but I don't think they ever discuss it directly at any length. I will admit to being unsure about how to regard this. On one hand, it seems as though Grace is omitting a essential part of herself when she shouldn't have to, but on the other, no-one should have to explain or justify their gender identity except of their own volition, and perhaps it is enough for Grace that Isaac has promised to love and accept her as she is.
I've said before that I'm a sucker for a well-drawn setting, and That Potent Alchemy was a real treat. Through the cast and crew of the Surrey, the reader is immersed in the world of the Georgian theatre - of Royal patronage, The Scottish Play, primitive stage effects and ghost-lights - while the characters' lives outside the theatre provide insight into a broader working-man's London. Isaac lives with his inn-keeping parents, who were my favourite secondary characters for the way they take Grace under their wing. Isaac's father is the descendant of freedmen from Scotland, while his mother is a white Englishwoman, and their interracial marriage and past in the abolition movement are subtly woven in.
Despite all that I loved about this book, I did find that some of the descriptive writing was not to my taste, particularly at the beginning, with passages like this:
The tent itself seemed to draw closer around them, get smaller, though the furniture didn’t shift at all. Lucy and Raiza’s voices seemed to soften and come from very far away, as though they had gone in to a cave. Grace’s head swam. A moment later (only a moment? It felt longer), Lucy was standing and heading for the tent flap, and Raiza was pinching out the candle wick with long-nailed fingers.However, this either got more to my taste as the book progressed, or I became more used to Bowery's style (probably the latter). Towards the end, there were some descriptive passages that I thought were beautifully written, and I always connected with the dialogue (the banter between Isaac and Grace was wonderful!) and the characters' introspection.
This has been a long and quote-heavy review, but consider yourselves lucky, because I highlighted 72 passages on my kindle, which is about 3 or 4 times what I normally do. Between the characters, the setting, the romance arc and the plot (which I haven't even spoken about, but it's good), there was just so much in That Potent Alchemy.