The Apothecary’s Curse by Barbara Barnett
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. 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 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 got a copy through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.)
The story of “The Apothecary’s Curse” intertwines different plots, mostly mid-19th century London, a short early 20th century stint, and 2016 Chicago. All feature Gaelan and Simon, two men who became accidentally immortal through ingesting an alchemical compound, and struggle to lead a life of their own. Condemned for a crime he didn’t commit, Gaelan was tortured for years by a mad doctor, before fleeing abroad, while Simon pines for his dead wife, unable to join her in death. As the decades pass, they find themselves remaining that strange brand of friends who can’t stand to be in each other’s presence for too long, yet always gravitate back towards each other. Until a strange book and a geneticist fall into the mix, and both men realise they may be about to know worse than one single mad doctor in a now closed asylum.
All these plots aren’t only concerned with alchemy and immortality, but also with love: Love for a woman, love of friendship, love of knowledge (even though gained in twisted ways), love of family, love of life itself… because when all’s said and done, Gaelan still doesn’t want to die, still finds wonders in the way science has been progressing.
In general, I found the main characters compelling, especially Gaelan, who never really loses hope in humanity in spite what he’s been through. I found the contrast fairly interesting: Gaelan, who tried to help and was tortured and killed for it, called a criminal and a madman, forced to flee, but kept enjoying life, becoming a dealer in old books and antiques, nevergiving up in spite of his struggles with PTSD; and Simon, who seems to have everything (respect, fame and money as a doctor, then as a famous author), but cannot find peace, haunted by the memory of his departed wife—his story was tragic, though I admit I tended to side with Gaelan much more because, well, who can fault the guy who tries to live instead of wallowing in despair for a whole century, eh? As for Eleanor and Anne, they had their own struggles to go through, their own decisions to make, trying to fight evil as they could, even if it sometiles meant resorting to another kind of evil.
If anything, I was a little disappointed in the 2016 part. The 1842 and early 1900s one felt more vivid, better developed, whereas the modern era plotline, while interesting, was also a bit lackluster. Perhaps because I kept thinking there wasn’t enough danger in it, considering what was at stake and the ‘evil genetics/pharmacy company’ that sooner or later would be after Gaelan. I guess I expected more development here, more of a feeling of urgency, especially towards the end.
Conclusion: Still a solid 3.5 stars. I enjoyed this novel.