The Alchemist's Box (Merchant Blades book 1) *****
By Alex Avrio

I love quest style adventures and the Merchant Blades series delivers plenty, along with some magic, world building, girl power, and solid character development. The Alchemist’s Box takes place in a world whose technological advancements mirror that of our Napoleonic Era. Regina Fitzwaters and Maximillian Jaeger are mercenaries in the Merchant Blades, and veterans from opposing forces. They are forced into working together by a loan shark to retrieve a mysterious box from Pella, a nearby Duchy. That’s when things get complicated!

Alex and I met in an online writers’ workshop and I provided notes on an early version of this story. It was good then, so good that I bought the paperback the moment I learned it was published! I’m glad I gave it a reread. As I write this review, I’m thinking of who I can trust enough to lend the book to that will actually give it back.

I succumbed to a nasty bug that my family passed around like a four layer bean dip and spent about thirty six hours under a blanket. My only escape was Avrio’s world and the Merchant Blades. I read a couple hundred pages on my road to recovery. It brought me back to those stay home from school sick days of my youth, where I would burn through novels and hope I never felt better. Please don’t go licking toilet seats to emulate my experience, Dear Reader, the adventure is every bit as good when you are well.

Avrio’s chapter lengths allow the modern busy-body a sense of accomplishment even if there is only ten minutes for a read. I enjoy the pace so much, that I adopted it in my own novels, starting with A Paleolithic Fable. We the readers are pulled in so many different directions with social media, the dreaded television, over-working, over-studying, and actual contact with other human beings and those distractions take away from our precious novel time. Short, episodic chapters like those in The Alchemist’s Box are the perfect solution to modern society’s attention deficit.

Despite their 1800s feel, the Merchant Blades takes a modern stance on female involvement in the military. I love it! My sister is an Iraq war veteran and one tough cookie. Regina’s struggle with sexism in the story very much mirrors the struggles modern females in the real world encounter when they choose traditionally male occupations. Regina doesn’t have it easy, but she’s got grit and a female side. That level of character development is appreciated and necessary. I think Rhonda Rousey would make a great Regina Fitzwaters in Merchant Blades movies!

Here is a quote to illustrate Avrio’s take on gender discrimination:

              “I’m fed up with men in charge not knowing what they’re talking about.” Onoria turned       towards Regina. “Aren’t you?”

                “I don’t like people in charge that don’t know what they’re doing, male or female,” Regina said.

I think Avrio struck a fine balance between adventure and supernatural fantasy in the Merchant Blades series and I’ll be the first to buy future installments in this series.

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