Dan Brown started this trend of writing authentic versions of inauthentic histories, and making them believable. We loved all the conspiracy theories that he cooked up and he had a few bestsellers on his hands. Now that the goldmine had been discovered, every author who could spell c-o-n-s-p-i-r-a-c-y came up with his own half-baked or fully-baked theory of the untold secret in the past, which can change the way we see the world, and the evil forces out to keep it a secret. Scott Mariani continues this glorious exploitative tradition with 'The alchemist's secret'.
Imagine for a moment that you know what is alchemy. You have read Dan brown and "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." And you have the internet as an ally. Now you are given a contract to write a book on 'The Alchemist's secret'. What theory comes first up in your mind???
Scott Mariani did not bother to dig beyond the first theory that comes up in everyone's mind. The hidden 'Elixir of life', 'Philosopher's Stone' and the quest for it by some lunatics, was enough for him to go on and write 300 pages, give or take a few. Bundle in a tough hero with a secret hidden in his past, a pretty female scientist to give it the ring of research, a hidden secret journal and a few catholic bad guys with a penchant of beating themselves up at the slightest provocation. Some mention of the Nazis. And you have 'The Alchemist's secret'.
Is it readable? Yes. Is it fast? Yes. Is it unputdownable? No, you can put it down on any page, and pick it up from any page after a year, and you will not have missed the story. But, the trouble with such books is the same as with watching an episode of CID. However tiresome it is, you HAVE to finish it completely to know how it all pans out in the end. Even if you can predict every scene, you still have to finish it, and keep up the hope that the author will produce a cat out of the hat.
Another problem with the book is that you don't fall for the characters. You don't root for them to not die, or fall in love with each other. However, since so much action has to be covered in so few pages, this is a common problem with fast-paced thrillers, and probably will not bother you if you like the genre.
It could have been so much more. Alchemy has a glorious tradition associated with it. Some of the best names like Newton and Bacon were alchemists. It gave birth to modern chemistry as we know it. It has had its share of real lunatics, and secrets. If the author had bothered to go beyond the first page of google search, or clicked on the links on its wikipedia page, he would have produced a much more nuanced version of the same story. Sadly, he must have been working under a deadline.
Will I recommend it? If you are a fan of conspiracy theories, like authors like Ian Caldwell, Daniel Silva or are a fan of Scott Mariani, go for it. Parts of it are enjoyable, and to be honest, I did not feel like quitting it or picking up another book as a diversion. Reading it does not seem like an ordeal. It might serve as a fast read in a train or bus journey, with the book to be left there itself after finishing. But if you are looking for some fulfilling conspiracy theories, I'd suggest pick up Elizabeth Kostova, Katherine Neville or even Daniel Silva.
Otherwise, I suggest you give this one a skip. There are a lot of good books waiting to be read.
(Dr. Pinak Kapadia is a periodontist who loves to read science non-fiction and fiction books as well. He blogs at drpinak.blogspot.com)