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Short story review: Mercury, Sulfur & Salt, by Ben Stahl

September 18, 2013

From this review onwards, I’ve decided to start scoring out of ten rather than five. The reason I did this, put simply, was that my original five-point system didn’t gel very well with my reluctance to give perfect scores, as it was leading to a glut of 4s in my review list. This, I believe, will fix matters. If anyone has any opinions on review scoring systems, I’d be keen to hear ’em.

Anyway, without further ado…

As the daughter of a powerful alchemist, Rhea resents the fact that her father refuses to teach her anything more than rudimentary alchemy. Though she understands that he is trying to protect her after her mother died in a violent alchemical accident, she still hates the secretive nature of his work. After an argument with her father, she seeks out his assistant Aurora. Instead of receiving the comfort she sought, she is asked to violate every belief she’s ever held.

Strange cloaked figures swarm the village, reducing it to cinders while they work to contain the deathly whispers floating on the scorched air. The night is red with blood and fire, filled with the screams of the dying—and something else. She must wade through the chaos of the village to try and find her father—and some answers—before everything dear to her is reduced to ash.

Worst of all, Rhea knows that it is all her fault.

Cover

Cover

My rating: 7/10

Before I begin, a quick disclaimer: I was a beta reader for this story and liked what I saw. I went into the final version expecting to like it and was not disappointed. That said, I was not compensated for the beta-read, nor was I compensated for the review you see below.

Mercury, Sulfur & Salt is the story of Rhea, the daughter of a powerful alchemist who herself wishes to learn the art of alchemy. Rhea is stymied in this regard by her father, who fears a repeat of the accident that killed Rhea’s mother. Rhea has, however, managed to learn exactly one advanced alchemy technique; this has earned her the nickname “Dandelion” from her friend and adoptive mother, Aurora. Rhea goes to Aurora’s house for comfort after a run-in with her father, only to find Aurora stricken by a strange illness and begging for death.

Needless to say, things soon go downhill for both Rhea and her surroundings.

Rhea herself was a very effective heroine, who manages to be strong without coming across as unrealistic. The other characters were also well-executed, with the veteran alchemist Isalia proving to be a particular highlight. The dialogue was very well done and the writing, on the whole, is superb. The climax is suitably powerful, and the ending leaves things open to sequels without feeling anything less than conclusive.

The story is certainly not perfect. The first act suffers from a rather abrupt (and distracting) scene transition in the middle, and the narrative can’t quite seem to decide whether the settlement of Dimwalt is a village or a town. The latter point in particular bugged me and is indicative of rushed editing. I can only hope that it is fixed in a subsequent edition.

Despite the above complaint, Mercury, Sulfur & Salt is dark and thrilling piece of fantasy that is easy to recommend to fans of the genre. I very much enjoyed my time with Rhea and look forward to seeing where her story takes her next.

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