I'd been meaning to read this book for a while; I found a copy of it and its sequel after Readercon, and then spent about a week reading. It wasn't what I expected; I'm not sure what I expected, but I got more than that.
The Alchemists is far-future science fiction; a prologue explains that aliens arrived after humans had spread throughout the galaxy via coldsleep-ships, and brought various gifts: Ember, a drug which makes humans essentially immortal; Darkjump ships, which enable faster-than-light travel; and a device to enable communication between different worlds at close to realtime. Then the aliens leave, and the Darkjump ships begin to be lost in the Dark, making travel more dangerous and the need for new planets within range of humanity to become more desperate, at least to some. It's already too late for birthrate limitations, and the laws about native inhabitants of planets have already begun to be bent, even when those native inhabitants show signs of intelligence.
Almost all of this information is encapsulated in a description of a museum display; even though any sf reader will have seen all the ideas before, the presentation kept me intrigued throughout.
Then the story begins. The setting is sf, but the story, I think, is a mystery, both in structure and in a more meta sense. The characters are a team who have been assigned to judge the intelligence of a native species, or at least to offer a recommendation to the government agency that will make the real decision. So far, the government agency has not once decided in favor of the native species, and two of team are very bitter about a previous case on which they worked, with insectoid intelligences.
The species under evaluation on this planet are called the Kin, and they look exactly like humans. Exactly. Except it is clear there's nobody home, no intelligence whatsoever; and they only come together to mate, otherwise remaining in their own territory, not like primates at all. Their origin and biology and evolution and functioning is the major mystery the characters attempt to solve.
At the same time, the evaluation team has decided they must protect the idyllic existence of the Kin, and in order to do so, they decide to lie to their government and fake intelligence, language, and culture for the Kin, or at least a single Kin. Moral issues abound in this undertaking, and create stress among the characters, who each have their own problems as well; almost every one of the team, in fact, has their own mystery, interwoven into the plot.
The writing style is also interesting. It's multiple third person point of view, and most of the scenes aren't very long, so there is something of a mosaic effect, which adds to the feeling of a mystery. You're given pieces of information about the characters that may or may not be colored by the views of the pov character, and that also tie into the overall plot. I was impressed; and still, at the end, there were a few twists that surprised me.
I don't know if this book is for everyone. I needed time to think about each scene as I read it, and decide how that piece fit into the whole. It rewarded me for reading slowly. I'm looking forward to the companion book, The Pathfinders.