Alchemy of Souls is a romance set in a fantasy land of mages, sorcerers, and assassins. Do not expect your typical romance tropes in this K-drama: The two main characters are only helping each other out of necessity. Jang Uk (Lee Jae-wook) is the charismatic male lead at the center of the story who has been rejected by every mage master in town. Luckily for him, he happens to run into Naksu (Ko Yoon-jung), a heartless assassin, who has shifted into the body of a mystery woman named Mu-deok (Jung So-min).
These two leads make an unusual pair as they butt heads while trying to make use of each other to resolve their dilemmas. The drama has a slow start, with a lot of back and forth between Naksu and Jang Uk as the two make efforts to work together as both servant and employer, and master and pupil. However, the end of the first half introduces some promising new plot points, and even new characters, that could lead the story into a bright new chapter.
Alchemy of Souls‘ slow start is partially due to necessary world-building. The introduction of the story helps the viewers understand the fantasy setting along with the necessary context to comprehend Jang Uk’s main problem. The show takes its time introducing the world, its characters, and their magical abilities. There is a huge cast, each with their own backgrounds that in one way or another tie back to the main leads. At first, there is no clear villain, with the story actually starting with Naksu as the enemy. However, as the show progresses, we see that there is more complexity to her character and much about her yet to be revealed.
Along with a slow start, another issue is that some of the main issues in the story are resolved too easily. One of the most critical problems is Jang Uk’s sealed magic, and the fear preventing all mages from helping him unseal it. While the story implied grave consequences if anyone were to open it, Heo Yeom (Lee Do-kyung) breaks it alone by giving Jang Uk some of his powers. While he did get scolded and there was a discussion about it, the mage society eventually lets Uk keep his powers with absolutely no punishment for Heo Yeom. If it was that easy to unseal his magic, it is unclear why everyone prevented Jang Uk from becoming a mage from the beginning.
In another instance, Jang Uk and Naksu (as Mu-deok) urgently escape on a boat to hide deep in the forests to save Jang Uk from being killed. However, soon enough Jang Uk is back in the village with his friends without much consequence, implying that he was never that far off from his hometown. In fact, his friends come to visit him often, and don’t even try to hide their visits. Additionally, while deep in the forest, one would expect a training montage for the development of Jang Uk’s character. However, he is more reluctant than ever to train and is only seen practicing a single technique. While the move does help him in the end, it is a bit of a stretch to suggest he would able to defeat the crowned prince (as he later does), who was better trained.
There are also inconsistencies in Naksu’s relationships with her two potential romantic interests, Jang Uk and Seo Yul (Hwang Minhyun). Her relationship with Jang Uk is mostly forced as she must act as his servant while also teaching him to be a mage. One second, she is willing to work with Jang Uk, and the other, she is planning his murder. Similarly, she has different interactions with Seo Yul, who worries about her, but also threatens to leave her to die the next second. While push-and-pull dynamics can be entertaining in a romantic drama, they can also be confusing. Hopefully, Naksu will be more consistent in her behavior, allowing the audience to understand her feelings better, in the next part of the drama.
Surprisingly, new characters are introduced at the end of the first half to add more drama and context to the storyline. First we have Heo Yun-ok (Hong Seo-hui), who has become smitten with Jang Uk despite his disinterest in her. Her addition is odd considering the story is not too romance-heavy, and the character Jin Cho-yeon (Oh My Girl‘s Arin), who was introduced earlier on, is already vying for Jang Uk’s heart.
A more interesting addition is So-yi (Seo Hye-won) who seems to be a friend of the real Mu-deok. So far, So-yi’s character is hinting that Mu-deok is not an ordinary girl and maybe also tied into the mage society. Adding to the theory is the announcement that Alchemy of Souls will continue for a Part 2 of 10 more episodes after the first 20 episodes concludes. As such, there will be lots more time to explore this world, including getting to know Mu-deok as her own character separate from Naksu’s possession of her body.
While Alchemy of Souls suffers from inconsistencies and slow pacing in its first half, the last couple of episodes see the show turning things around. The introduction of new characters helps to establish an exciting fresh chapter in Jang Uk’s life as he finally gets to train as a mage. Besides following Jang Uk’s mage journey, hopefully future episodes of Alchemy of Souls will build off the final first half episodes’ seeds and showcase a Naksu that is more consistent in her friendship with Jang Uk, as well as revealing more about Mu-deok and what role she will play in the bigger story.