Lettie Peppercorn is the twelve-year-old landlady of an inn on stilts. A note from her alchemy-practicing mother, who left a decade ago, warns her that if she leaves her home she could die. Confined to the inn with only a pigeon and a pair of demanding and belligerent old crones while the contents of the house slowly disappear to pay for her worthless father’s gambling debts, Lettie faces a pretty miserable existence. Then one day a rude man arrives to sell her something he claims to have invented, something called snow.
The Snow Merchant, the debut novel by Sam Gayton is a light alt-reality fantasy tale that is all about alchemy. The writing style is gentle and quirky and demonstrates a vivid imagination for heightened reality. Unfortunately, despite this the rather light story never really allows enough room for this invention to sing. It takes ages to go anywhere, early chapters meandering around the point of the creation of snow before it actually happens. The narrative takes significant time out to get into detailed backstory surrounding Lettie’s mother and while it’s all written with flair and a focus on light humour the pacing does suffer, particularly for a relatively short book.
Once Lettie’s story moves away from the inn where she lives and moves out to the open sea with Noah, a boy with a plant growing out of his shoulder, things start to improve and the story becomes more of an adventure. Many classic adventure story tropes are exploited to good effect; the notion of the innocent child trapped by circumstances suddenly able to see the world works very well. And once the story moves into territory that allows the central alchemy concept to come into its own it becomes a breeze.
The problem is the unambitious scale of the book. It feels like there’s a rich and original Discworld-esque world here but it is revealed in very little detail. The fantastical elements of the story display flashes of imaginative brilliance but the frequency of such moments feels inconsistent with a narrative that seems equally happy to talk about characters making soup. Ultimately it all feels a bit inconsequential, an agreeable read to be sure, but unremarkable. I enjoyed the story but wasn’t entirely satisfied by it.
Colourful characters and a tendency to the bizarre make this rather thin story entertaining. There’s invention to spare but as adventures go this one feels a bit underwhelming.