Originally Posted: September 20, 2020
“Mariela – the alchemist, the survivor – would build a life for herself here in this town. Even if it wasn’t guaranteed to be a quiet one.” – Usata Nonohara
With her very own potion shop and energetic group of friends to fill it, Mariela’s post-disaster life is looking up. She provides them comfort from their world full of dangers and, in return, they give her respect and companionship: feelings her previous life never had. It is this serene scene she worked so hard to create… and one she will work even harder to protect. (<3)
(Warning: contains very minor spoilers for Vol. 1 – 3)
The Alchemist Who Survived Now Dreams of a Quiet City Life is a fantasy slice-of-life light novel series that revolves around Mariela, a not-so-talented alchemist of the Kingdom of Endalsia. However, once her city is wiped away by the Stampede and she awakes from her multi-century nap, she becomes the only known alchemist in the entire kingdom. Despite this overwhelming responsibility, she decides that a quiet life is for her and to run a small potion shop instead. From there, we meet a variety of interesting characters and immerse ourselves in many slice-of-life stories and adventuring tales. May I also mention that Labyrinth City is built atop a massive dungeon? If you’re looking for a calm and quiet life amid a world of danger and loss, this one is for you. Usata Nonohara’s story of potions and monsters is filled with light fun and action-packed excitement in a world skillfully illustrated by ox. Drama, romance, action, and comedy are all beautifully bound together to create a one-of-a-kind experience.
Did my introductory section excite you a little? I hope so! This series is one of my firsts and why light novels are a big part of my life now. I just love it to bits and want to go over every detail with you all. Of course, I’ll keep it brief. And admittedly, I will try to make it shine with this review. But don’t worry! I will talk about some of its weaker aspects as well, in case those are deal-breakers for you. Furthermore, we will make brief comparisons to I’ve Been Killing Slimes, The Werewolf Count, Reincarnated as a Sword, and May These Leaden Battlegrounds for their use of fantastical worlds, storytelling, and slice-of-life elements. With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s get on with this (mostly spoiler-free) review. We will talk about the characters, the world, the alchemy, and additional bonuses. By the end of it, I hope you’ll understand why I love this series so much!
Now, at the front of every cover is our lovable, ditzy(?), titular protagonist, Mariela. She’s an alchemist – a pact-bearer who maintains a connection with the region’s ley-line – and possesses magical abilities and potion-making skills. In fact, she’s the only one left! The narrative encompasses her life in Labyrinth City and everything related. As a protagonist, she’s not the most unique. Mariela is kind, hard-working, and alchemically smart. She’s also naive, unsuspecting, and dense. There’s not much more to say about her. She’s a typical optimistic fantasy protagonist – though she lacks any significant fighting capability. Her only goal is as the title says: to live a quiet life. In this case, the overall strength in her character is not in her characterization nor her unique choices. She is not one to be admired or whose arc should be investigated for deeper meanings. Instead, it is her situation as an unconventionally powerful force trying to lay low that kicks off and structures the entire story. In short, Mariela’s characterization isn’t the most interesting or most developed. However, this is not the point of the series. Her role is as a glimmer of hope in a potion-starved world and as the catalyst of change in the lives of many. And it is here where the series shines.
As Mariela’s character implies, The Alchemist Who Survived is not an epic tale of high-fantasy with a prophetic destiny attached. If you’re looking for that type of story, this is not for you. Instead, we deal with a variety of small plots with mundane results: material collecting, rebuilding a mountain hot-spring, teaching alchemy at a guild, etc. These are the little things that need completion to maintain her quiet life. However, in their fantasy world, everything has a little bit of excitement to it. Dangerous monsters, long-kept secrets, and tragic pasts are just a few of the encounters on her adventures. With Mariela’s goal being the constant, this collection of stories allows for a deeper exploration of the world and incorporates elements beyond slice-of-life. But don’t underestimate this odd narrative choice. Each volume has an overarching plot to which many of these shorter stories build-up. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but it gives a level of depth and connectivity on top of something like I’ve Been Killing Slimes (whose focus is more on fluff and cute girls and is great on its own). While Vol. 1 is almost entirely setup and world-building, Vol. 2-3 have great overarching plots and deal with more serious matters. This contrast between Mariela’s new life and the grim reality raises the stakes and creates conflict in what our alchemist values more: the lives of her friends or her ideal city life. With every volume, the slice-of-life stories become more cherished as the Labyrinth sinks its teeth into the City above.
Our setting, the Kingdom of Endalsia, is of the standard fantasy type: magic, potions, monster-infested forests, monkey-guarded mountains, sentient(?) dungeons, and awesome outfits (see below). However, what The Alchemist Who Survived does to make it special is provide intricate connections and detailed descriptions of… well, everything. From orc-meat tasting to hot spring recapturing to salve production-lines, Usata Nonohara gives you all and more. Slice-of-life portions of the narrative dive into the inner workings of Labyrinth City as well as the day-to-day life of its denizens. The action-adventure plots explore monster mannerisms and habitats and give an exciting look at battle abilities. Labyrinth dungeoneering provides a dark reality that must be faced and brings increasing danger as adventurers clear deeper and deeper levels. All of these elements are connected to Mariela and her potion-making: a skill whose depth I couldn’t even begin to describe (but will try later on!) Because of the breadth of information contained, it is easy to feel overwhelmed but everything feels like a part of a cohesive world. The connections and depth of each additional concept create a full experience that immerses you in a vast world, leaves you wanting more, and keeps you on your toes for that next bit of knowledge.
As they were mentioned before, we will talk about the cast beyond Mariela. Living in Labyrinth City is a varied collection of characters, each with their niche to fill. Whether that would be the spymaster housewife, the stalwart slave, the energetic guild master, or the electrifying secretary, you would be amiss to say there aren’t enough interesting faces. The Alchemist Who Survived doesn’t even stop there. With consistent personalities and unique manners of speaking, each side character is memorable and feel as if they represent a part of the world (class, profession, etc.). Their actions further shape their setting and are similarly affected by others, giving a sense of agency to even the most minor of characters. All of this is further deepened with side plots that focus on them (rather than Mariela). In these sections, we take their perspective and follow them on a particular event in their life. Battle plans, potion logistics, forbidden magic, and dinner dates are all scenarios explored to deepen our understanding of the plot, world, and characters. And their presence in all types of scenarios (slice-of-life, dungeoneering, etc.) provides new reactions and deepens their characterizations. In doing so, Usata Nonohara gives us time away from Mariela to keep things fresh and show the consequences of her presence in the people around her. But unlike Mariela’s simple goal, many of the characters have more meaningful plots. These include themes of redemption, revenge, family, and (unrequited-)romance (yes, really!) Finally, with such a diverse cast of characters, the final result is that The Alchemist Who Survived‘s world feels alive and keeps you interested in what each character will do next – even the not-so-good ones.
Now, before we dive into the largest element of the series, let us discuss some of the weaker aspects. Given the volume of words to be digested, Usata Nonohara has trouble keeping things exciting at times. This problem is particularly frequent in the slice-of-life sections of the narrative and during the entirety of Vol. 1. While some weaving of dialogue, story, and character development is present, much of the quality is lost in the mountains of description and a large number of concepts to juggle. Similar to my gripes in The Werewolf Count, Vol. 1, this can result in the reader feeling they must slog through the foundations to get to the interesting parts. This problem is further exaggerated in Vol. 1 by the low-stakes plot and immense task of building the world from scratch. Though, this issue gets significantly better with the labyrinth subjugation plot and with increased time immersing oneself in the world.
Related to the slowness is the lack of focus the narrative seems to possess. In Vol. 1, there is only one goal, complete the setup required for Mariela’s quiet life. However, the many required tasks are disconnected from each other (gathering materials, buying a new outfit, equipping Sieg, etc.) and lack impactful conclusions. For those used to having spectacle in their light novels, there is very little excitement to be found in the goals. And the aforementioned side-plots in future entries can feel completely unrelated to the overarching task at hand: defeating the labyrinth. Of course, the intention for all is to further flesh out the setting and give us time to fall in love with the characters that inhabit it. However, this results in readers taking many breaks to build up the attention to finish every detail. And with every break is a risk of leaving a book unfinished.
Lastly, due to the large number of concepts incorporated to create this series, there are some inconsistencies present throughout. This error is similar to our discussions in my Reincarnated as a Sword, Vol. 1 review and May These Leaden Battlegrounds, Vol. 1 review where too much can hurt the cohesiveness and depth of implemented concepts. Personally, this did not destroy the immersiveness during reading and the issues were only found after picking at it afterwards. This just goes to show how well-built the world feels.
Obviously, throughout three volumes, there is more to say but I believe these are the critical issues of the series as a whole. To summarize, those would be the slow pacing, general lack of focus, and some inconsistencies in the world-building.
Now onto alchemy – an element that takes so much focus and time it may as well be the main character. To the world of The Alchemist Who Survived, alchemy is one-part magic and another-part science. There are ingredient lists and procedures to follow, all with associated risks and potential for failure. This alone is decently interesting but there are a few things that make it even better: (1) the similarities to essence extraction in the real world, and (2) the use of magic to solve practical issues. Let us briefly discuss each aspect and why they improve the experience.
As one who loves the technical side of things, (1) and (2) help me appreciate the complexity of the magic-system and provide real-world analogies to better solidify the concepts. To start, let us talk about extractions. The wide variety of materials available require an even greater number of methods. Perhaps one needs the medicinal parts of a plant’s root but must avoid grabbing the deadly toxin mixed in. Or a certain compound is only soluble in alcohol but requires mixing in water-soluble salt to turn into a potion. The possibilities are endless! Many of these issues come up in the real-world and have certain solutions; some of which can be seen in The Alchemist Who Survived. Such methods include cold extractions, correct proportions, and sedimentation + decanting. The effort required to complete each is not trivial, and (1) gives a sense of appreciation for Mariela’s hard work (especially if you’ve experienced similar things yourself). Of course, if this sort of thing bores you, I would recommend skipping the Appendix (described later).
Continuing on, we will talk about the implementation of the aforementioned methods. Unlike us, Mariela has magic. This ability allows her to change a potion’s temperature, automatically mix liquids, and concentrate solutions + more with minimal cost – except for her limited magical reserves. This can destroy the appreciation of the effort the methods created. However, Usata Nonohara avoids this danger by making the conventional (i.e. non-magical) methods superior in scale and speed. This makes magic a convenience rather than a catch-all solution with time bearing the heaviest cost. And for a city under the pressure of the Labyrinth, time is not a luxury. Thus, we can still appreciate Mariela’s efforts as she relies on conventional techniques. Instead, what the magic is used for is to seal up the finer issues: those whose solutions would require far more description for little payoff. Such issues include extending potion expiration dates and evaporation prevention. This use of magic allows for Usata Nonohara to focus on more important practicalities and say they thought about every possible issue. Thus, just as (1) shows the depth of the system, (2) demonstrates the consistency and thoughtful consideration.
Overall, the alchemy system is just like the world: detailed, complex, and consistent (mostly). And with Usata Nonohara’s writing, you feel like you’re right beside Mariela as she makes the potions. Her efforts are shared with you. And the resulting positive effects on the surrounding cast and world make it all the more satisfying.
Now, aside from our lovable protagonist, the beautifully crafted setting, the interesting side characters, and detailed potion-making are the bonuses found at the beginning and end of each entry. To open a volume is to find a fully-coloured manga-style section that illustrates a small section of that light novel. These are always a treat as it gives ox – one who does very well with the black-and-white inserts and covers – free reign on the expressions and movements of the characters and the look and feel of the world. On the other end is an Appendix; one split into four distinct sections. The topics include illustrated character summaries, potion recipes and methodology, a Haage side-story, and the author afterword. The character summaries solidify the personalities and looks of the cast and provides quick reference for future readings. Each set of potion recipes gives a quick summary of the materials, procedure, and results. They even include a chibi Mariela going over the steps with you: cute and informative! Haage’s stories hint at the next volume’s events and give us a fun tale from our favourite guild-master. And lastly, the afterword is as one would expect. In summary, The Alchemist Who Survived has even more to the world than the main text provides. In the Appendix, you’ll find both extra entertainment and great reference material.
As always, before we conclude, let us talk about a few other details. Firstly, the art is amazing. Unfortunately, I can’t show you all of it (Go read the book!) but I can assure you of a few things: it is fantastical and beautiful. Orc king fights, carriage rides through the forest, and mountain campfires are all illustrated to accentuate character introductions, climatic encounters, and calm slice-of-life scenes alike! ox’s work gives a sense of detail, expressiveness, and fantastical wonder that complements the world of The Alchemist Who Survived. Their quality and skillful use approach the level of that in Tearmoon Empire (a must-read work whose review you can find here). Secondly, every volume is rather thick; each coming around 350 pages. As they are jam-packed with characters, a world, and more to read and explore, their standard pricing (15 USD) is a bargain and well worth the value. Thirdly, the whole collection is complete at 6 volumes long (in JP). If you’re worried about committing to a massive story, worry not! When this review is released, Vol. 4 is should be just around the corner. So, we’re almost 2/3’s of the way! And lastly, I would recommend reading Vol. 1-2 if you decide to try the series out. This is because of the setup Vol. 1 tackles and the improvements with subsequent entries; Vol. 2 is a much better representation of the overall quality. To conclude, be sure to consider these points when deciding on jumping into this unique series.
Overall, The Alchemist Who Survived, Vol. 1-3 has been one of the greatest reads for me. The fantasy world is immersive. Its cast is varied and memorable. And its alchemical system is consistent and deep. With it all, Usata Nonohara takes us on an exploratory journey filled with magic, laughs, and action that hides darker threats beneath and within the city. Some issues in the volume of description, unexciting goals, and unfocused plot can be found (especially in Vol. 1). However, once the world is built and plots thicken (Vols. 2-3), the time investment shows that it is worth the reward. ox’s art is detailed, expressive, and fantastical: a great complement to the story. Their frequency and placement to accentuate scenes of all types will not disappoint. I would recommend The Alchemist Who Survived to light novel readers looking for a fantastical world to dive into and inhabit (perhaps literally). It provides a unique experience I have yet to find elsewhere in the English LN market. For now, I have already purchased Vol. 4 and will review it soon! Let’s continue to follow Mariela as she fights to protect her not-so-quiet city life~!
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
To readers of fantasy light novels looking for an immersive world, light-hearted atmosphere, and adventure+ slice-of-life with serious overarching plots.
To lovers of eccentric casts, technically-detailed alchemy, and spectacular dungeoneering.
Hello! Thank you for taking the time to read my review (even if you scrolled straight to the bottom). I hope that you take home even a little of what I’ve written down. This is my first multi-volume review, so I hope it’s to your liking!
For those looking for a little more incentive to give this series a try: just look at the detail in the world and outfits! And Sieg! And Lynx! And… Ah. There are so many reasons why! Let’s just have a long talk about it someday, okay? ;)
I’m 春華 or Haruka, aspiring novelist, light novel reviewer, and the recently titled “Effortlessly Effervescent Embodiment of Eloquence.” I’ve only started diving into light novels, so please bear with my naiveté. You can follow my Twitter for updates on my reviews and writing progress. And if you want to talk about light novels with me and many others, consider joining our Discord here! Let’s all get along!