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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Fred Patten Reviews The Alchemist's Apprentice

The Alchemist’s Apprentice

Author: Dave Duncan
Publisher: Ace Books
ISBN: 10: none
ISBN: 13: 978-0-441-01479-8

Dave Duncan has been a major author of imaginative fantasy adventure novels for the past two decades. In The Alchemist’s Apprentice, the first in a new series, he ventures brilliantly onto new ground.

Alfeo Zeno, the flip, sardonic, wittily egocentric first-person narrator, is the young apprentice of Maestro Filippo Nostradamus, the ancient, irascible nephew of the more famous Michel Nostradamus. Like his uncle, this Nostradamus is a well-known astrologer, alchemist, clairvoyant, doctor, and savant (popularly believed to be a sorcerer, although admitting to that would bring a sentence of execution by the Church). He has been employed by the nobility of the Republic of Venice for years as a personal physician and to cast their horoscopes.

When procurator Bertucci Orseolo collapses and then dies at a dinner party of thirteen at which Nostradamus is present, the Maestro is suspected of poisoning him. He is advised by the Doge to flee Venice, but instead he orders Alfeo to prove his innocence by finding the real murderer – despite the probability that the elderly Orseolo just died of natural causes. Alfeo soon discovers that several of Venice’s leading politicians each have reasons for wanting Orseolo’s death to have been natural, or caused by Nostradamus, or by a murderer who will never be found; and each of these politicians are powerful enough to have Alfeo tortured or “disappeared” if he threatens their schemes. Alfeo’s investigations involve him with sultry courtesans, sadistic police officials, art forgers, assassins, damsels in distress, Ottoman spies, and much more before Nostradamus arranges for a recreation of the fatal dinner party to expose the killer.

The Alchemist’s Apprentice has a brief and unnecessary scene of demonology, apparently only to justify its publication as a fantasy adventure. Similarly, its use of an imaginary “Nostradamus’ nephew” and fictitious Venetian historical figures have led some reviewers to call this “alternate-world s-f”. It is really a delightful and well-researched historical novel (but historical novels don’t sell as well as s-f), set in the exotic independent Venice city-state of the 1590s or early 1600s, featuring Renaissance Italian versions of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigating an “impossible” murder. I look forward to the next novel in the series, The Alchemist’s Code, to be published in March 2008.

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