The English term “alchemy”, from the Arabic word al-kīmiyā, refers to the ancient practice of purifying and perfecting certain objects. When alchemists appear in contemporary books, they are often shown as striving to turn lead into gold and/or creating an elixir of immortality. The concept of taking rough materials and improving them is not so dissimilar to that of puberty. It’s no wonder, then, that alchemy has been popping up in books featuring teenage characters.
The practice of alchemy seems to have originated in Chinese text around 73–49 BCE, and has also been found in Greco-Roman Egypt, the Far East, the Indian subcontinent, and the Muslim world. This truly global phenomenon is reflected in these five books, which feature teens and alchemy in real and alternate European history, contemporary Canada, ancient Africa, and a far-off fantasy realm.
A Golden Fury by Samantha Cohoe
Set in the shadow of the French Revolution, teenage Thea Hope is an alchemist, like her mother. Just as they’re on the cusp of creating a stone of immortality, her mother goes mad. Trying to figure out what happened, Thea learns there’s a curse on the Stone, causing those who attempt to make it to lose their sanity. Sent to live with her father, Thea encounters other alchemists—who will stop at nothing to steal Thea’s knowledge of how to create the Stone. But Thea can only run for so long, and soon she will have to choose: create the Stone and sacrifice her sanity, or let the people she loves die.
The Lady Alchemist by Samantha Vitale
In this alchemy-tinged Rumpelstiltskin retelling, set in a magical alternate world, Sepha is an exceptional teen alchemist. However, even she can’t transmute straw into gold… leaving her in a tricky situation when she’s thrown in prison and ordered to do just that. To save her life, she makes a deal with a conniving magician but with a catch. After being freed, she has just one year to alchemically create a body for the magician, or else she owes the magician her firstborn child. The closer she gets to her deadline, the more Sepha realizes how much danger she’s landed herself in. How can she save her country when the body she owes the magician will be used to destroy it?
The Alchemist’s Daughter by Mary Lawrence
Set in Tudor-era England, teen Bianca is not an alchemist—but her notorious, imprisoned father is. Employing her knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants to work as a healer, Bianca is able to make ends meet. But when one of her concoctions seems to kill a friend, she must apply her knowledge of the healing arts (and 16th century forensics) to clear her name. The first in a series.
The Alchemists of Kush by Minister Faust
While this novel includes some magic, the titular alchemy is used as an overarching metaphor of young men transforming from immature lead to self-aware gold. This theme unfolds in two parallel narratives. In modern-day Edmonton, young Sudanese refugee Raphael Garang struggles to fit in a new country. In ancient Africa, Hru-sa-Usir struggles with similar feelings in a wildly different era. Both boys have lost fathers to civil war and mothers along the path of escape. Both boys were hunted and fell into violence to survive. Both came under the guardianship of mystic madmen who promised to transform them. And both vowed to become leaders who would transform their worlds, or die trying.
The Ancient Magus’ Bride (series) by Kore Yamazaki
In this long-running manga and light novel series, orphaned high school student Chise Hatori decides to sell herself at an auction in order for somebody else to take her in and to have a new place to call home. She is sold to Elias Ainsworth, a seven-foot-tall magus with an animal skull for a head. Returning with him to Britain, Chise becomes his apprentice in all kinds of magic, including alchemy. A gender-swapped version of this story, Wizard’s Blue, features a male orphan and a female magus.