A Rarer Gift Than Gold is the debut novel of Lucy Branch, sent to me to review.
When we first meet Abigail Argent, she is doing a degree in Chemistry and stumbles upon a book about the Philosopher’s Stone which sparks her interest. Her parents have a foundry where specialist craftspeople and artists work – the background to her childhood. Her passion is working with metals as a patineur, her skills lying in the application of patinas to bronze, creating a variety of colours. Abigail also has a severe case of psoriasis on her hands, causing her to wear gloves, which she is extremely sensitive about – yet she can only work on metal without her gloves, making her condition worse.
By some twist of fate, she ends up going to Venice in Italy, where she works on a job restoring the bronze doors and statues in a church. Her interest in alchemy continues, and she visits a church in Verona and a library in Venice by way of research. She meets a series of interesting, sometimes shady characters, which propels her into a dangerous world of people who will do anything to use her talent with metals to turn lead into gold.
The book began a little slowly, but I haven’t read a fiction book about metallurgy or restoring metals before, and this aspect, whilst a little complicated, was extremely interesting and I loved the descriptions of metal-working and crafts. Adding to the descriptions was Abigail’s synaesthesia – her ability to describe music as colour and colour as texture. This evoked some beautiful images that came alive on the page.
Once she arrives in Venice, the story picked up, and changed into a fast-paced mystery thriller. I found this believable, considering her interest in alchemy, and her interest in the chemical aspects, having studied chemistry. She continues to pursue her interest even when receiving strange threats from an unknown source to give up her interests. This is also when we begin to wonder just how unique her talents with metal are – and why some characters seem so interested in her particular skills. There is a hint of magical realism, particularly in the last half of the book, when she is forced to use all her wits to survive.
However, the weak point of the novel is that I felt it was a little short, and some of the other characters in the book appeared a little flat. Abigail herself, Terry and Therese were all well developed, but David, Abigail’s love interest, could have done with a little more detail. Some more scenes could have added to aid the atmosphere and character development, giving the reader more of a connection with other characters. I felt that the villains descended into violence a little too quickly, but given their background and desperation, not unprecedented.
On the whole, Lucy Branch’s first novel is interesting, well crafted and fast paced. I enjoyed reading a book with patination, alchemy and chemistry interwoven into the plot. At its heart, this is a novel about transformation – the myth of the Philosopher’s Stone, and the transformation of Abigail herself.