A Golden Fury
by Samantha Cohoe.
Wednesday Books, 2020.
Hardcover, 352 pages. $19.
Reviewed by Christine Norvell
Curses are too common, particularly in fairy tales. Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Puss-in-Boots. Thanks to the collections of the Brothers Grimm and their popular Kinder und Hausmärchen (1812), a protagonist could be cursed in horribly creative ways. They could be turned into a creature, stone, or block of wood. Their voice or sight might be stolen, or at the very least, they could get stuck in brambles, a forest, or a glass coffin.
Fairy tale curses often reveal the power of evil, or more importantly as in the German märchen, feature consequence, reward, and punishment. This is the crux of Samantha Cohoe’s young adult debut, A Golden Fury. In my interview with her, Cohoe explains simply that her story may share some parallels with the genre, but it is “beyond fairy tale.” And I agree.
The world of young adult literature demands the clever, the gritty, the tried-and-true yearning for relationship and romance. The subgenre of historical fiction, and in this case historical fantasy, breaks a welcome mold. It is not another popular medieval story or petty young adult retelling of alas, one more fairy tale like that of A Curse So Dark and Lonely. Instead, the novel surprised me, not with its themes, but with its undercurrents.
Life and death are not the only stakes. Within this historically inspired fantasy, the woe and warning of a curse become instructive to the extreme of damnation or salvation.
A Golden Fury follows an ambitious heroine raised by her famous and overbearing mother to pursue alchemy’s ultimate dream—the Philosopher’s Stone. Seventeen-year-old Theosebeia Hope serves as her mother’s understudy. Together, the two have obsessively pursued their studies and learned many languages to scour the works of alchemist scholars in Europe and Arabia. Thea reveals that “If we could turn pewter and lead into silver, then we didn’t simply have to take the world as it was given to us. We could change it. Lead into silver was only the beginning. Next was silver into gold. Sickness into health. Death into life.” It is an irresistible ideal.
Early in the novel while still in Normandy, Thea’s mother, Marguerite, presses herself to work through the night, smelting the white elixir, the final ingredient needed to make the Stone. Yes, she finds success, but not without a price. It is written—
Cave Maledictionem Alchemistae. Beware the alchemist’s curse.…
The Stone chooses the last alchemist, but woe to whom it does not accept.
In this twist of fantasy, Marguerite is found unworthy by an alchemical god and driven to madness and violence. She does not die, but in the midst of the French Revolution, her daughter Thea must leave France to find help, to find her father in England, a man who doesn’t know she exists. Soon after she arrives, Thea learns her father is a professor of chemistry at Oxford. Conveniently, he too is an alchemist with hopes of creating the first department of alchemy in England. With her knowledge and instinct, Thea is quickly swept up in his scramble to create the Philosopher’s Stone along with the help of his apprentice Dominic and a peer from Italy. Danger abounds as they are quickly entangled with the henchmen of Burggraf Ludwig in London, and the taste of the unexplainable, the mystery of magic imbues the otherworldly quest to come.
But not without Faustian caution. In our interview, Cohoe readily clarifies that altogether alchemy is a unique field in that its fingers move among philosophy, theology, science, and magic. Power over nature, in fact, is seen as a way to define magic. She says we find echoes of alchemy today in transhumanism and in the universal secular urge to grasp immortality. The desire to surpass the corporeal is not unique.
In the novel, Cohoe implies that alchemy’s ideals are more than magic. She sprinkles hints of the spiritual world throughout her chapters. More than one scene asks us to consider the price we would pay for knowledge of this level. We learn that some adepts, for instance, are intuitive alchemists willing to sell their souls to demons for the secret knowledge to make the Stone.
Like the character of Faith in Francis Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, Thea craves a secret, almost forbidden, knowledge. Knowledge becomes a metaphysical experience because she is certain it is a gateway to more than the mind. In The Lie Tree, Faith reads her father’s words about the rare mendacity tree: “I have lived long enough to see the death of wonders. Like many others, I have dedicated my life to investigating the marvels and mysteries of Creation, the better to understand the designs of our Maker. Instead, our discoveries have brought us doubt and darkness.” Among the numerous parallels between the two young adult books, this is the most striking. Man’s search for the Holy Grail is a desperate endeavor. The consequences are not glossed over, and the spiritual world is a clear presence.
Can a Holy Grail like alchemy be a means of salvation?
Thea does have faith. She does believe in the ideal of alchemy—no illness, no want, no death. It could bring back her mother and Dominic from madness. Yet this faith in alchemy also appears as rebellion. Thea tells Dominic that a country priest once “found out about my mother’s work and came around to condemn her for it in shrill preacher’s tones.” It might have turned Thea and her mother from the Catholic faith, but later after Dominic accidentally kills a man, he seeks confession with a priest. Thea waits nearby and confesses her own true longing. She acknowledges that Dominic is the fortunate one. He could unburden himself, “make things right with his own God.” Not so for Thea. She tells us, “if alchemy was our religion, then we were its priests.” Her religion is tied to worth. The work of her hands, it is what she did for the god of alchemy that gave her purpose and worth. And who knew if this fickle god would find her worthy? How far will Thea go? Will alchemy demand her life? This is the blind faith that Cohoe explores.
Oddly enough, this pursuit of knowledge is reminiscent of George MacDonald’s witch Watho in The Day Boy and the Night Girl. MacDonald tells us that the wolf in Watho’s mind had made her cruel. The witch, this villain, was obsessed with knowledge and controlling others by it. “She was straight and strong, but now and then would fall bent together, shudder, and sit for a moment with her head turned over her shoulder, as if the wolf had got out of her mind onto her back.” Knowledge can bend us. Knowledge can be weighty, but the caution is clear. Worship and obsession can warp us, or as the apprentice Dominic explains, “If we all remembered death and judgment are coming, we’d be more careful how we live.”
Cohoe’s second novel Bright, Ruined Things will be released in the fall of 2021. A historical fantasy set in the 1920s, it is a loose retelling of The Tempest featuring a magical family by the name of the Prospers.
A classical high school English teacher, Christine Norvell is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and author of Till We Have Faces: A Reading Companion.
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