by Ashley Spindler (@DrAshleyNova)
Editor: Megan Records (@meganrecords)
Adult Historical Fantasy
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London, 1834. Charlotte Price is a mess; perpetually tardy, chronically unfocussed, and indecisive to a fault. She’d hoped that apprenticing for London’s only master alchemist and private detective would help solve her problems, but her first investigation will test her limits in ways she never imagined.
The case: an apparent spontaneous combustion. But it turns out to be something much more dangerous: the result of a drug that can turn mages, those with magical talents, into living napalm. While searching for the source of this new substance, and those responsible for distributing it, Charlotte’s mentor vanishes without a trace. Lost, overwhelmed, and inexperienced, Charlotte must use everything she’s learned, and improvise the things she hasn’t, to track down her tutor. With the help of her childhood best friend—a doctor and recently out trans woman—and a tattooed sorcerer—the son of a prominent Viscount—she infiltrates a secret society fighting for mage liberation, takes on magically empowered assassins, and tracks a conspiracy that takes her to the heart of government.
Yet Charlotte’s biggest challenge is her own mind. Having struggled her whole life with ADHD, her errant attention span threatens to stop the investigation in its tracks. To find her mentor and prevent disaster, she must overcome her fear of failure, trust her instincts, and learn that she has everything she needs to thrive.
THE POTENT SOLUTION is an adult historical urban fantasy, appealing to fans of The Dresden Files, The Conductors, and Magic for Liars. It features a romance between a cisgender queer woman and a transgender woman, which is packed with “oh god, I just want them to kiss already” yearning. The finished manuscript is 96,000 words.
I have a PhD in Astronomy and have written articles for peer-reviewed journals. I draw from my experiences as a queer woman and someone with ADHD throughout my writing, and I take pride in creating diverse characters who aren’t motivated by historical bigotries.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Content Warnings: Drug use/abuse, mildly graphic sex, violence, graphic description of wounds/dead bodies
First Five Pages
I was late.
Worse than that, I didn’t even know if I was late. “Off with the faeries,” my father would always say when I was deep in my thoughts. I’d popped into the Turkish café across the street from the shop where I apprenticed, intent on enjoying a quick cup of coffee before starting my day. Instead, more than an hour had passed, and I found myself engrossed in a rather fascinating book on the subject of lycanthropy. The coffee was cold, the hustle and bustle of Carnaby Street was beginning to build outside, and I was none the wiser—it was no small wonder I made it to work at all.
I’d like to tell you I wasn’t usually so scatter-brained, but I’d be lying. Lateness came to me as easily as breathing. I could recite the names and key properties of all the known chemical elements, I memorised the hieroglyphs of Nicholas Flamel, and I could calculate daily, weekly, and monthly finances with mental arithmetic alone—just don’t ask me to do any of that on any kind of regular schedule. It wasn’t so much that I was forgetful—I had a very good memory, in fact. Forgetting and remembering just aren’t the right words for it. Instead, it’s more like losing something, and not knowing you’ve lost it until all of a sudden you need to run out into the rain and your umbrella is nowhere to be found. Then, someone helpfully points out that it’s in the umbrella stand, exactly where it should be, and you have nothing to do but hide your shame.
It was pure chance—or dumb luck—that when a cat darted onto the street outside, it spooked a cart horse and caused such an enormous ruckus that I almost jumped out of my skin. When the animal part of my brain finally accepted there was no immediate danger, I looked out the window and spotted an old lady crossing the street and walking straight up to the front door of my place of employment.
“Fuck, I’m so done for.” I downed the remaining dregs in my cup—I never waste good coffee—and practically sprinted for the door.
Carnaby Street had been completely ripped up in the 1820s—all part of the rejuvenation works around the new Regent Street to the west—and a purpose-built shopping street was designed and constructed under the supervision of noted architect, John Nash. The new market consisted of two picturesque terraces of three- and four-storey houses, each with a shop on the ground floor, and it quickly attracted an array of clientele from bakers and butchers, to couturiers and umbrella makers. Having grown up in the back streets of Camden Town—where one would be more likely to find a brothel than a bookshop—Soho always seemed something of a juxtaposition of upper-class opulence and working-class grime.
The shop where I worked was, even by Carnaby Street’s standards, eclectic. The tall picture-frame windows were stuffed floor to ceiling with colourful poultices, bottled ointments and remedies, and signage that proclaimed relief from all life’s ailments. Whether it was joint pain, a weak stomach, migraines, or marital problems, one substance or another could be found within the jumble of wares. The brickwork, window frames, and door of the shop were all painted in a deep shade of green, above which a sign was boldly styled in gold paint:
The Potent Solution J. Morton
Despite looking like a bizarre apothecary’s or pharmacy, the Solution was far more than meets the eye. If you knew what you were looking for, you would note the small window above the door, styled with a geometric symbol known as The Squared Circle. It was the calling card of an Alchemist, someone who studies the boundaries of the Arcane and Mundane, a brewer of potions and transmuter of the elements. My employer, Jennifer Morton, was one such person.
The old woman I’d spotted was standing on the doorstep, alternating between ringing the bell and knocking on the door. Odd, I’d expected Jennifer to open up with or without me, but the closed sign was still hanging in the window. What was she up to? More importantly, could I get away with being late?
“Morning, ma’am, sorry to keep you waiting.” I stepped up beside the woman and brandished the keys to the door.
“Half an hour I’ve been here,” she lied. She was bundled up in more coats than I could count and had a pale face covered in liver spots.
“Of course, please accept my deepest apologies.” I had no interest in arguing with a septuagenarian before nine o’clock—or really any time of day, as grandmothers always have an unending supply of complaints—so I simply unlocked the door and showed her inside. “What can we do for you today?”
She moved to answer but was taken aback by the haphazard arrangement of tables and display cabinets, which could only be justified as a form of organised chaos. “I’ve been having trouble sleeping, young lady. Mr. Parsons over on Dean Street recommended your… establishment,” she said after collecting herself.
“Well, whatever your problem, we have The Potent Solution,” I said with a pained smile. “I would recommend our lavender ointment; we also have oil of valerian—though that should only be used short term—as well as a poppy seed extract that’s quite effective for some people. Or perhaps you were looking for something more specialist?”
“Potions, decoctions, that sort of thing. If you need something Arcane in nature, we offer individual commissions at very competitive prices.” Competitive prices were easy because we were the only Alchemy shop in London.
She gave me a puzzled look, and then one of disdain. “Oh, you aren’t one of them, are you?”
“One of what?” I sighed.
Witches. It wasn’t the worst thing I’d been called, but quite possibly one of the most out of date. Nobody referred to the magically gifted as witches anymore. “No,” I said, stifling a sharp laugh, “we aren’t mages. Or sorcerers, or wizards, or druids. We’re alchemists.”
“What’s the difference?” she asked, impertinent. “I don’t want nothing to do with anything illegal.” I sighed to myself—no matter how enlightened society had apparently become, some people refused to leave the 16th century. When you spend every day surrounded by magic, you sometimes have to stop and remember that most people don’t know or care one lick about it—excepting, of course, a few who get nostalgic about the witch trials.
“Well,” I paused to gather my thoughts, “technically speaking, mages cast spells by channelling energy from the Arcane Aether, made possible by an unexplainable personal connection to the magical world.” The customer stared at me with a blank face—babbling Arcane nonsense was a trick I’d picked up from Jen to deal with difficult situations. “Anyone can do Alchemy—with the right knowledge and training. Besides, magic is perfectly legal.”
That wasn’t entirely true—mages faced tight restrictions when it came to magic and employment—but no one was hanged or burned at the stake anymore. Alchemy enjoyed something of a legal exemption from those restrictions, having historical popularity among the ruling classes came with certain benefits.
I smiled again at the woman, but this time in a more impatient—are we done here because I’d like to get back to my book—kind of way.
“I’ll just take the lavender ointment,” the old lady said after a moment’s pause.
“Coming right up, ma’am.” I collected the bottle from the shelf, took the payment, and noted everything down in the ledger. Once the customer had left, I sat down and pulled out my book. A job well done, and I’d managed to avoid Jennifer’s notice.
Or so I thought. A bang came from the stockroom behind me, muffled by the wall. “You’re late,” Jennifer called a second later. “Something for you on the cash desk.”
“Dammit,” I said quietly, followed by, “I know, I’m sorry,” much louder. Jennifer had left a box of small bottles on the desk, along with a blank chalkboard sign—all of which I’d somehow failed to notice. “What’s all this?”
“Things that should have been in the window an hour ago,” she responded. She was moving around in the stockroom, making a hell of a racket. “Flu remedies. I want them next to the cough syrup.”
The glamourous life of an apprentice alchemist, stocking shelves and arranging window displays. “Right, there’s a lot here, do I need to clear anything out?” Evidently, she didn’t hear me.
There was a loud crash, a panicked sound, and a sigh of relief. “I’m going to be in a lab all morning, and it’s important I’m not disturbed.”