Karen Mahoney Guest Post: Alchemy in The Iron Witch


2011 Winter Book Preview: Vampire Book ClubEd. note: Karen Mahoney was kind enough to offer a copy of her debut The Iron Witch up for one Vampire Book Club reader. The contest is now closed. Winner will be announced on Dec. 30.

Before we turn things over to Karen Mahoney, a quick heads up that Flux has pushed the U.S. release date up to Jan. 25, 2011. We’re super excited for this one. You can pre-order The Iron Witch from the Book Depository or Amazon.

Author Karen Mahoney

Karen Mahoney, author of The Iron Witch

Alchemy in The Iron Witch
By Karen Mahoney

First of all, I just want to say a big “Thank You!” to Chelsea for inviting me over here to talk about something I could quite happily bore you all with for several hours. 😉 When she suggested that I write something about the use of alchemy in The Iron Witch, I thought: Cool! What a great idea! I’ll get to discuss something I love, while also giving people a glimpse behind the curtain of the inspiration for my book.

I soon realized that, to be quite honest, there is just waaaay too much material and I’ll never do it justice in a single blog post. Still, I can scratch the surface, and maybe a few of you will be interested enough to take a closer look one day.

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of alchemists for many years and started seriously researching it about six years ago. I used to work in an occult bookstore in London and had ready access to some wonderful resources including antiquarian texts not readily available elsewhere. I’ve always loved that the historical alchemists seem to have taken themselves ridiculously seriously, while some of the things they were actually doing were simply… well… ridiculous. 😉 And it’s not as though the practitioners themselves weren’t aware of the stigma attached to their experiments, because many of them operated in secret. Sir Isaac Newton, a world-famous English scientist and astronomer of the seventeenth century, is often considered one of the most important mathematicians and physicists in history—and yet he himself worked on alchemical experiments in secret. Clearly, many alchemists were afraid of the ridicule that might befall them if it was known how they liked to dabble in one of the more mystical branches of esoteric study.

An Alchemist in his Laboratory by Thomas Wijck

An Alchemist in his Laboratory by Thomas Wijck

Alchemy is an ancient art—centuries old—and there have been branches of it studied and practiced all over the world. There are some pretty far out theories as to how the alchemists came upon their information, encompassing everything from demons to Egyptian gods to channeled angels and even to alien technology. It’s hard to believe that alchemy was actually a precursor to today’s study of chemistry, but there was a lot of method, ritual and painstaking note-taking involved in their pseudo-scientific experiments, even back in the sixteenth century. I tried to get a flavor of that into The Iron Witch, but I had to be careful not to overdo it. There’s just way too much source material and I didn’t want to go all info-dumpy.

Also, I really wanted to make the subject my own in the book, and something that today’s YA readers might be interested in—I created my four alchemical Orders from scratch, and had a great deal of fun doing that: The Order of the Dragon, Order of the Crow, Order of the Lion and the Order of the Rose. In The Iron Witch, we only see the Order of the Dragon, which is the secret group of alchemists that Donna Underwood—my main character—is born into. I wanted to explore the idea of what it would be like for a modern teenage girl to grow up knowing that her life was mapped out for her as an alchemist-in-training, especially considering that the ancient study was traditionally more of a masculine pursuit.

Well, it looks that way on the surface, but when I dug a little deeper there is certainly evidence that female alchemists existed. Sometimes they were considered more like ‘assistants’ to the alchemist himself (picture me rolling my eyes here!), and they were given the vaguely patronizing title of ‘Moon Sister’ by some groups. The most famous female alchemist was a British woman: Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, who had her own laboratory and worked with cool stuff like invisible ink and secret codes.

john dee - scrying mirrorIn The Iron Witch, Donna gets involved with the centuries-old war between the alchemists and the fey (the dark elves), though this is something I have to admit I made up! However, there are some great stories surrounding one of the most famous alchemists of all time—Dr. John Dee—and how he contacted angels through the use of an obsidian scrying mirror, and the help of a reportedly dodgy spiritualist called Edward Kelley. Whether or not they really were talking to angels, I will leave for a later discussion (!), but the scrying mirror itself, along with more of Dee’s esoteric tools, can be viewed in the British Museum (see image at right).

Of course, at the very heart of all alchemical study is the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life. Whether you view alchemy as an ancient form of science or as a kind of ritual-based magic (in The Iron Witch, I’ve decided to view it as a mixture of the two), the search for immortality is very much bound up in its history. You’ll certainly see Donna and her friends getting caught up in that quest, though she is put in the awful position of having to choose between the life of someone she loves and betraying everything she’s been brought up to believe. I think the cover artist, Lisa Novak, caught that dilemma beautifully.

Alchemy is also about transformation (base metals could supposedly be turned into gold, using the Philosopher’s Stone), and that’s a big theme running through my debut novel. I didn’t intend for it to be there—I certainly didn’t set out to write a book with a particular theme, as I believe the best fictional themes often arise organically—but it made its presence felt more strongly as the writing progressed. Donna changes a lot throughout the events of the story, and I very much hope you’ll enjoy sharing that journey with her if you get a chance to read the book.

The contest for THE IRON WITCH is now closed. The winner will be announced on Dec. 30.

The Iron Witch by Karen MahoneyCONTEST DETAILS AND RULES
1. Fill out this entry form.
2. This contest is only open to anyone in the world. (International readers, rejoice!)
3. Contest is closes at 11:59 p.m. CST on Tuesday, Dec. 28.
4. Winners will be selected using Random.org and announced on Dec. 30. Then they will be contacted via email and given 48 hours to claim their prizes. If we do not hear from the winner(s) within that time, new winner(s) will be selected.
6. Entrants must be at least 13 years old, or have their parent’s permission to enter this contest. Please review our privacy policy, if you have any questions as to how Vampire Book Club uses your information. (Short version: we’ll only use it to contact you for this contest.)
7. Though unlikely, Vampire Book Club has the right to change or cancel any giveaway at any time without prior notice.
8. A big thank you to Karen Mahoney for providing the book for this giveaway.

Karen Mahoney gave up on her dreams of being Wonder Woman a long time ago, but has instead settled for being a writer of urban fantasy. Karen – or Kaz, as many of her friends call her – has been published alongside some of her favourite authors, in anthologies like THE ETERNAL KISS and the forthcoming KISS ME DEADLY (both by Running Press). Her debut YA novel, THE IRON WITCH, will be published in the US by Flux and in the UK by Random House Children’s books, January 2011. She is British and currently lives in London, though she dreams of one day living in Boston.

31 Responses to “Karen Mahoney Guest Post: Alchemy in The Iron Witch”

  1. RK Charron says:

    Hi 🙂
    Thank you to Karen Mahoney for this great post.
    I really enjoyed learning about alchemy & how it pertains to Karen’s writing.
    All the best,

  2. Teri C says:

    OH wow that was a great book introduction and post. Thank you for bringing this book up to my attention.

  3. Rachel says:

    The Iron Witch is definitely one of the 2011 reads I’m looking forward to. It was great to learn even more about it! Thanks!

  4. Steph says:

    I have read a goodly number of books featuring Dr. Dee, including an ARC coming out at the end of Dec. My review at
    Fangs, Wands and Fairy Dust
    Saturday. email: steph@fangswandsandfairydust.com
    Twitter: @fangswandsfairy

  5. Thank you for this awesome contest! I really want to read this! Something I’m looking forward to! Thank you so much for the opportunity!

    Tweeted: http://twitter.com/#!/MoonlightGleams/status/15850271733194752


  6. Cindy McCune says:

    Alchemy…wow, such a fun idea. Would love to win this. Thanks for the chance!http://twitter.com/clmccune

  7. Candace says:

    I’m very excited to read this book! Thanks so much for the great giveaway!

  8. Pisinat says:

    Ooooh thank you for this giveaway and for making it international!

  9. Kaz giving away more books? Most generous author ever!
    I’d love to win a copy of TIW but if I don’t I’ll just be the first in line to buy a copy 😉
    Liia x

  10. Thank you for the wonderful giveaway and interview, I so want to read this book.

  11. Aleetha says:

    Thanks a lot for the chance

  12. Dropping in a bit late to say thanks again to Chelsea for having me. 🙂

    And thanks for leaving such nice comments, guys! I hope lots of people enter the giveaway – I’m looking forward to hearing how that goes.


  13. Vicky N. says:

    I would love to win that amazing book. I do not is it just me or does the things in her arm look like the scales in the Firelight cover? Anyway it sounds great! Can’t wait to read it!

  14. Doreen R says:


  15. Aylee says:

    I hate chemistry and yet somehow alchemy seems so much more interesting. I think it’s a combination of the magical elements and, like Karen mentioned, the ridiculousness of it.

  16. latisha depoortere says:

    Looks like a great book can’t wait to read it thanks for the chance great giveaway!

  17. The Iron Witch is in my TBR list for 2011, thanks Karen and Vamp Book Club for the giveaway <3

  18. Fabulous post and giveaway! I always love reading these type of posts/interviews.

  19. Minas says:

    Thanks for the giveaway! I really want to read this book!

  20. I am really looking forward to The Iron Witch! Alchemists and elves sound very unique. 🙂 Thank you for the giveaway!

  21. Again, thanks for some great comments. I am smiling from my sick bed. (It’s that time of year, when flu strikes down poor unsuspecting writers…)

    @Vicky N. Yeah, I see what you mean about the scales on FIRELIGHT (that’s a pretty cover, btw). Luckily for Donna, she isn’t scaley, though. 😉 Her tattoos *do* give her some interesting abilities, though…

    @Aylee Re. Chemistry, me and you both! I really didn’t get on well with chem back in my school days (a looong time ago). *g*

  22. You know I love you when I had to enter my comment three times– it keeps timing me out for some bizarre reason. *snicker* I’m so excited for you, and to read your books. I know it’s going to be huge success. I can’t wait!

  23. Naj says:

    Wonderful giveaway! Thanks for the chance to win. I’m a new follower, great blog! 😀

  24. Mia says:

    This is just lovely! Iron Witch is on my wishlist and one of the books I’m anticipating on 2011! Thank you for the giveaway! 🙂

  25. Mithee says:

    Thank you for the giveaway! I love alchemy too! You know that anime/manga, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood…? The best ever! I was so addicted to it that at some point in my life, I started researching about alchemy. Alchemy is pretty absurd and the idea is totally incredulous but alchemists seem to be very very into it. (more like deluded, imo) I wonder if they have really turned a copper into gold… in the anime, they can even fix anything using the transformation circle! And-and-and the Philosopher’s Stone! I want that! Gosh, I’m so excited for The Iron Witch now. :DDD

  26. Fi-Chan says:

    thank yuo! 😀

  27. Valerie Burleigh says:

    What a great posting…wow. It’s going to be a wonderful book to share!!!

  28. Aik says:

    I’d love to read this book! Thanks for the giveaway!

  29. Mithee, just in case you come by again, I’ve never read or seen Full Metal Alchemist, though I know a bit about it. I REALLY want to read the Manga, but I was worried I might unconsciously pick up on ideas in it – I wanted The Iron Witch to be my own take on alchemy.

    Maybe now the book is coming out, I’ll be able to try FMA. 🙂


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    Make your own life more simple get the credit loans and everything you require.


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