This article contains spoilers.
Warrior sorceress Nak-su (Go Yoon-jung) had a rough run of things at the beginning of Alchemy of Souls.
Engaged in a wrathful and quixotic vendetta against the powerful Songlim clan of mages, she was mortally wounded and forced to perform a dangerous soul-switching spell. She winds up in the weak body of a blind girl Mu-deok (Jung So-min), and without her powers.
Fast forward to halfway through the season, and Mu-deok finds herself in what should be a precarious situation. She is nestled deep within the Songlim stronghold as a servant, and in danger of being discovered at any moment.
One would think this warrants maintaining a low profile, but the beautiful and feisty Mu-deok finds herself juggling three lithe and handsome suitors – trainee mage heirs Jang Uk (Lee Jae-wook) and Seo Yool (Minhyun), and Crown Prince Go Won (Shin Seung-ho) – who fall over themselves vying for her affections.
Uk and Mu-deok, engaged in a master-servant relationship that’s later reversed when she becomes the master and he the pupil, are the primary romantic pairing of the series. At odds with one another at first, they’ve grown deeply attached without expressly stating their feelings.
But if there was any doubt how they felt about each other, it changed when Uk defeated the Crown Prince in a duel and was welcomed into the Songlim society of mages, something he had been told his whole life would never happen.
While this is an acknowledgement of his power and potential as a mage, the invitation is also a way for Songlim leader Park Jin (Yoo Jun-sang) to keep Uk out of sight within the Songlim compound and hopefully out of trouble.
The catch with being invited into the Songlim society is that trainees cannot bring their servants with them. Left behind at the magical gate to the compound in the forest, a devastated Mu-deok sits in stunned silence, her tears mingling with raindrops.
Following a brief period of despair, Mu-deok picks herself up again when she discovers that Songlim is hiring new servants. However, competition is fierce for the five posts up for grabs.
Mu-deok shows up, determined to prevail, and prevail she does, but only after all the men chasing after her use their combined knowledge and power to help her cheat.
The focus once again shifts to Mu-deok pushing Uk to master his powers. The Crown Prince bets Mu-deok that Uk can’t beat any of his mage colleagues in a battle. She wagers half of the precious jade stones she shares with Uk and he goes up against a series of challengers.
Handily beaten at first, he begins to study his opponents and improve his skill.
With most of Songlim distracted by these displays, the powerful and nefarious mage Jin Mu (Jo Jae-yun) is up to no good in the shadows, as he helps others achieve immortality through soul shifting.
Aside from some magical concepts such as soul shifting and “running wild” that take a little getting used to, Alchemy of Souls is an easy show to understand, which is not always the case with Korean period dramas – they tend to go into the details of abstruse power struggles between greedy royal clans.
That’s not to say that the narrative isn’t without its problems. When the story gains steam, Alchemy of Souls is often a pleasure to watch, but between the set pieces and exciting challenges its characters engage with, there are lengthy interludes where the plot grinds to a halt.
Some of this is by design, as cute and awkward misunderstandings between romantic leads are part of the package. Yet with most of the character development occurring during the plot-heavy stretches of the series, the lighter moments feel a bit trite and repetitive in contrast.
Thankfully, the show may be moving in a more consequential direction as it enters its final month. Mu-deok appears to have regained some of her powers and this will quickly alter the balance of power in her many relationships.
Uk is also on the cusp of engaging in his final Songlim duel to reclaim Mu-deok’s jade stone, a challenge he must overcome.
Elsewhere, tensions between the Songlim and Cheonbugwan are escalating well beyond suspicions, and Mu-deok, Uk and Yul, as well as Park Dang-gu (Yoo In-soo), son of Songlim leader Park Jin, are unlikely to remain on the sidelines.
There’s also the wily pickpocket So-i (Seo Hye-won), who came to the capital city in search of Mu-deok, her childhood friend before Nak Su’s soul shifting, and who is now being groomed by the shady Jin Mu to play the part of Bu-yeon, the lost blind daughter of Jin Ho-gyeong (Park Eun-hye), as part of his attempt to take over the Jinyowon clan.
With its renewal for a second season (which is already in production), Alchemy of Souls has become that exceedingly rare thing: a Korean drama series guaranteed a follow-up season while still on air.
We’ll be getting an additional 10 episodes, and Nak-su, as played by Go Yoon-jung, is slated to return. What will this mean for Mu-deok (and Jung So-min, who plays her) and her burgeoning relationship with Uk?
Alchemy of Souls is streaming on Netflix.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.