Immersive, unique, grisly and delightfully dark, Kylie Lee Baker’s newest YA fantasy novel, The Scarlet Alchemist, is quite frankly one of the most compelling and readable fantasies we’ve read this year. The start of an electrifying new duology set to the backdrop of an alternate Tang Dynasty, The Scarlet Alchemist follows Zilan, a poor biracial teen with the ability to raise the dead, after her power draws her into the deadly games of the royal family. To celebrate the release of her beautifully bloody new book, we had the joy of chatting to Kylie all about it.
Hi Kylie! I’m beyond thrilled to have the chance to talk to you today to celebrate the release of your new YA fantasy novel (and one of my favourite 2023 fantasy reads), The Scarlet Alchemist. For readers just learning about the book, how would you best describe it to them in three words?
Thanks so much for having me! If I can quote from my Kirkus review, I’d say it’s dark, grisly, and entrancing.
Can you tell us a little about your inspirations behind the book and Zilan’s story?
The book is heavily inspired by Fullmetal Alchemist, my favourite anime when I was a kid! That series is a second-world fantasy show about alchemist brothers who look for a philosopher’s stone to get their real bodies back after they were injured from a failed resurrection. I’m always trying to recreate that burning enthusiasm I had for my favourite childhood shows in my own writing, so I decided to put my own spin on the idea of alchemy in a way that related to my Chinese heritage. I was also inspired by the Poppy War to write an epic Chinese-inspired political fantasy.
Zilan is one of the most compelling and exciting protagonists I’ve had the joy of reading this year. How did you go about creating her character?
I’m so glad to hear that! Writing Zilan was both fun and challenging, because I love writing prickly girls, but I wanted her to be distinct from Ren Scarborough, the snarky protagonist in my debut duology. I decided early on that instead of being neutral evil like Ren, Zilan would be chaotic good, aka “scam the rich, feed the poor.” It was also really important to me that Zilan was an example of working-class hero who was proud of where she came from and saw it as an advantage. She’s proud of the practical skills she learned because of her job, and while she does have some extra reading to do in order to catch up with her peers, she also has tenacity that they don’t because nothing has ever been handed to her.
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The Scarlet Alchemist reimagines an alternate China, in which alchemists succeeded in creating an elixir of immortality. Although it’s more of a ‘what if’ world, I imagine you must have done a lot of research into ancient China whilst writing? Did you come across any facts that particularly surprised you about that time?
A lot of the wildest facts about that period actually made it into the book! For instance, five emperors died by drinking alchemical concoctions in their search for immortality. And the family situation surrounding the crown prince and the empress (which I can’t get into very much without spoiling anything) is drawn directly from history. I also read that toilet paper was invented in the Tang Dynasty, but details about bathrooms don’t tend to make it into my books!
Both of your YA duologies are fantasies set in an alternate time period. What is it about blending magic into the past you find so enticing to explore in your writing?
I just think the past is already so strange and surprising! It makes a great backdrop for fictional exploration. Often, some of the most interesting plot points in my books are drawn directly from history. I also really enjoy historical fiction because it lets you imagine history from the perspective of marginalized people, who historically didn’t leave much of a paper trail. For instance, it was very easy to find information about how royalty lived in the Tang Dynasty, but it was very hard to find information about how poor people lived, because no one was writing that kind of information down.
If you were to find yourself with a talent for alchemy for a day, what would you do with your newfound power?
This is very silly, but in Fullmetal Alchemist, the main character uses alchemy to instantly dry his hair by removing all the water with a single touch. I have long, curly hair. This power would change my life.
Finally, as someone already desperate for book two, is there anything about The Scarlet Alchemist sequel you can share to keep us going until its release?
I’m very excited to share it because I was a lot more creative with the structure of book two, and I think it really paid off—there’s magic that lets you go into the mind of people from earlier dynasties. The scope of alchemy expands a lot as the characters meet very powerful alchemists who aren’t as limited as Zilan was in book one.
Get your copy of The Scarlet Alchemist by Kylie Lee Baker here.