Airships and Alchemy
Helen Rochester has a dream: unveiling her airship at the Paris Exposition of 1867. It’s sure to make a splash. But her interfering father wants to chaperone the journey — and she has doubts about the Italian alchemist. He has promised a revolutionary new fuel but why does he need the winged Venetian lion?
From the author of the comic Gothic novel The Mangrove Legacy and the medieval Breton Lais series, Airships & Alchemy brings you magic, mayhem, mechanicals — and beasts of various sizes!
Airships are nothing new in steampunk, but in my latest novel I tried to add a slightly more surprising angle. I imagined a world in which alchemy was not dropped in favour of chemistry alone, but continued to develop as the primary science. No longer simply in search of the philosopher’s stone, alchemists in my alternate history work on mundane tasks as well deeper occult secrets. They bring their mystical expertise to practical problems—like providing interesting fuels for airships.
Attitudes from the past linger: Helen’s father always refers disparagingly to the alchemist with whom his daughter plans to work, often calling him a mountebank. As far back as Chaucer’s time, this image of alchemists as frauds seemed to be the norm. The poet’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale offers up a portrait of the alchemist as con man, passing off recipes for gold that required nothing more than sleight of hand tricks.
Alessandro Maggiormente, the alchemist in my novel, is most notable for his proclivity for explosions (although to be fair, most of them are fairly small) and for his familiar, a Venetian lion named Eduardo. Because he is so accustomed to the beast, Maggiormente seldom notices the stares his familiar causes. Of course, so deeply absorbed in his work, it might be more accurate to say he notices very little that doesn’t have something to do with his alchemy.
Eduardo, however, is very hard to overlook. Imagine: a large lion would always stand out in Paris. It is not their natural location. But a Venetian lion is something extraordinary beyond a mere lion, too, for it has a pair of wings that are prone to draw gasps of amazement even after the initial reaction to finding the king of beasts prowling the Parisian pavement. While mostly ornamental—being far too small to actually cause the lion to fly, a fact Eduardo is generally loathe to admit—the idea of an airborne lion unsettles even the most hardened denizen of the City of Lights.
The addition on many occasions of a jaunty fez to the lion’s head might undercut somewhat any sense of alarm, even if it is also likely to leave many confused. Surely Parisians would appreciate his sense of style. In the novel, many people are initially frightened by the sight of Eduardo, but when they realise his nature is mostly gentle (provided one is not a pigeon, a creature for which he has no tolerance) they are inclined to accept him as they do much smaller cats.
How does he help the alchemist? Here’s a good scene to illustrate it:
“We don’t have to move,” the lion said, looking a little too pleased with himself. He stretched his wings out to their full size and then folded them back down again.
The alchemist looked at him with an eyebrow raised. “What?”
“I said, we don’t have to move anymore.”
“We did before?”
“You were thinking it.”
“True enough. So why don’t we have to do so now?”
Eduardo grinned, showing his big teeth. While the alchemist was very accustomed to this display, many were understandably intimidated by the gleaming choppers, a fact Eduardo chose to be aware of only some of the time. “I solved our problems with the concierge.”
The alchemist had a momentary image of the lion eating the poor woman, but doubtless he would be lying down to digest a meal of that size and he was looking far too alert and pleased with himself for that—which was a relief to say the least.
He was not pleased with Mme. Gabor, but he would not wish her to become Eduardo’s supper.
“How did you solve our problems?”
“I reasoned with her.” The lion looked even more smug now, shaking his mane to emphasize his pronouncement.
“How exactly did you do that? You worry me, Eduardo.”
His familiar barked with laughter, which seemed an entirely unsuitable sound for a lion to make. “What can I say? I made her an offer that she could not reasonably refuse.”
Maggiormente did not like the sound of that. “What sort of offer? Did this involve pigeons?”
“Only as an example,” Eduardo said with a small growl.
“What? She was trouble—and it was only likely to get worse. You need to work. I need to eat. It’s a fairly simple equation.” The lion coughed and a couple of pigeon feathers wafted out of his mouth onto the floor.
Maggiormente considered the situation. “Well, I suppose anything is worth not having to move again.”
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