A fictional world where illegal magic allows people to switch bodies. A powerful sorceress, trained from a young age to be an assassin. A young man with untapped magical ability, kept from the truth of his great but dangerous destiny. Sounds like a good setup, right? It is. And it exists on Netflix in the form of Alchemy of Souls, a two-season Korean drama that concluded its epic tale in January. The fantasy romance was watched by millions across the planet, but never quite got the attention it warranted in the United States… until now. You’re welcome in advance for introducing you to your new favorite show.
In the modern media era, it’s rare to find a big-budget story that isn’t based on a preexisting IP. This is as true in the Korean TV industry as it is in American media, as many wonderful K-dramas are based on popular webtoons. Don’t get me wrong — the adaptation process has brought me some of my favorite fantasy TV shows of all time (The Magicians, Merlin, The Untamed), and some of the best K-dramas of the past few years (All of Us Are Dead, Hellbound, Yumi’s Cells). But there’s something to be said for a story that doesn’t follow an already established plot, setting, and cast of characters. At the very least, the creative team — from the writers and director to the cast and costume designer — has a full sense of ownership that allows them to make choices outside of the limitations of canon. And, from a viewer’s perspective, anything could happen, adding an extra layer of tension and excitement.
Alchemy of Souls comes from the minds of the Hong sisters, the iconic sibling writing team known for hits like Hotel del Luna (starring Broker’s IU) and My Girlfriend Is a Nine-Tailed Fox. The Netflix K-drama follows the story of mages living in the Joseon-esque fictional kingdom of Daeho, which — as the show states in its opening minutes — “does not exist in history or on maps” (yes, it’s giving Merlin vibes). The series follows Nak-su (Jung So-min, at least for most of the first season), a warrior-sorceress who is forced to soul-shift into a body that leaves her much physically weaker, and without access to her magic. Still, Nak-su — who, from here on out, goes by Mu-deok, the name of the person’s body she switched into — has deep, hard-earned knowledge of spellwork and swordplay. She is recruited by Jang Uk (Lee Jae-wook), a young man from a noble family whose magical growth has been intentionally stifled since he was a child. He guesses her true identity, convinces her to train him as her apprentice, and their story properly begins. Romance may be involved.
While Alchemy of Souls isn’t an adaptation, it does borrow elements from both the xianxia and romance genres. If you’ve watched any Chinese TV dramas, like the aforementioned The Untamed, then you are probably familiar with some of the xianxia tropes Alchemy of Souls employs. Xianxia literally means “immortal heroes.” It shares some elements with its sibling genre wuxia, which translates as “martial heroes,” but includes characters with supernatural or magical abilities that are far removed from what’s possible in the real world. For example, while characters in the wuxia classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can defy gravity a bit by dancing through the canopy of a bamboo forest, characters in a xianxia like Alchemy of Souls can, you know, put their souls in other people’s bodies. As a white American who grew up in the ’90s with limited access to international media, I love watching K-dramas and C-dramas as an adult. While their tropes may be obvious to their domestic audiences, they exist outside of the Western story structures that are most familiar to me.
Many East Asian story formats are not allergic to romance and emotional vulnerability —rather, they often lead with it. Alchemy of Souls is not embarrassed to devote entire scenes, especially in season 2, to the lead characters gazing longingly at one another while one of the series’ epic love ballads plays in the background. Alchemy of Souls (and much of Korean TV drama) articulates expressions of character interiority in new ways for many Western audiences, offering a refreshing alternative to the traditionally “masculine” character interiority of ironic distance, stoicism, and displays of physical dominance often prioritized in big-budget Western media. While anger, aggression, and emotional stoicism are depicted in Alchemy of Souls, these experiences are not contextualized as more or less heroic than gentleness, playfulness, or emotional openness. And the series is just as likely to show a character express emotional pain by throwing themselves onto the ground and weeping as it is to see them express emotional pain by striking someone with a sword.
While the love story between Mu-deok and Jang Uk is the central narrative of the show, it is very much shaped by the drama they were born into. Because of the actions of their parents’ generation, the destinies of Mu-deok and Jang Uk have been inextricably intertwined — the complexity of which is slowly unraveled over the course of the show’s 30 episodes. In the meantime, the dynamic between the two is refreshingly complex. To keep her true identity as the assassin Nak-su a secret, Mu-deok is pretending to be Jang Uk’s maid — and therefore kind of is Jang Uk’s maid. (Again, major Merlin similarities.) However, she is also Jang Uk’s master in his magical training. When they meet, Jang Uk basically has to beg Mu-deok to take him on as her apprentice and, especially in the early episodes, she is often one step away from actually murdering him. While others may see Mu-deok as a servant to Jang Uk, that is not the truth of their relationship, and Jang Uk is never threatened by the ways in which Mu-deok has power over him. In this way, the dynamic takes on a subversive quality, complicating some of the traditional power imbalances between men and women in romantic relationships, both real and fictional. In the first season, this is further reinforced by the age difference between the leads, as Jung So-min, who plays Mu-deok, is 10 years older than Lee Jae-wook, who plays Jang Uk.
Outside of the two leads, Alchemy of Souls invests a good amount of energy in developing the world’s magical society, a crucial element to any series operating at this scale. In Daeho, there are four main families of power, and each of them has a young, hot heir apparent. (Think the Gossip Girl brats, but with magical powers.) Collectively, this group is known as “The Four Seasons.” Jang Uk is from the Uk family. His father, Jang Gang (Joo Sang-wook) was a powerful sorcerer who had the ability to perform the alchemy of souls, the spell that allows someone to swap bodies with someone else. Jang Gang dipped shortly after Jang Uk’s mother died in childbirth — but not before making everyone promise they would never teach Jang Uk a lick of magic.
Before the events of the series, Jang Uk was engaged to Jin Cho-yeon, thought to be the only surviving daughter of the Jin family, who is in charge of protecting most of the realm’s most powerful magic instruments. The Jin family is matriarchal, and they have the best, most consistent eyeliner game in all of modern TV. While Jin Cho-yeon may have been engaged to Jang Uk, she is secretly loved by Park Dang-gu (Yoo In-soo, who is much more lovable here than as cruel antagonist Yoon Gwi-nam in All of Us Are Dead). Park Dang-gu will eventually inherit control of Songrim, the seat of magical instruction in Daeho. And, finally, we have Seo Yul (K-pop star Hwang Min-hyun of the group NU’EST), of the distant Seo family. Seo Yul is like the friend who might inspire unhealthy resentment for how pretty and talented they are, except they are too earnestly kind and good. He has a past connection with Nak-su, and the show occasionally flirts with a love triangle, but never fully commits. Rather, the “Four Seasons” — especially Jang Uk, Dang-gu, and Yeo Sul — are consistently portrayed as supportive besties.
This is only a sampling of the rich ensemble and world Alchemy of Souls builds out, and the unexpected journey the show takes its viewers on. I don’t want to go too far into the second season’s plot, but let’s just say the first season ends on a major cliffhanger and, when the story picks up after a time jump, the characters are much changed.
If you’re a viewer looking for a meticulously outlined magical system or a fantasy story that prioritizes plot over emotion, Alchemy of Souls is not for you. But, if you’re someone who misses the sentimental shenanigans of an adventure fantasy series like Merlin and are looking for another epic, emotion-driven fantasy that whips from silly to heartbreaking to devastatingly romantic in the space of an episode, Alchemy of Souls may just be your destiny.