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Alchemist's Apprentice

Last Updated, Aug 2010


Dave Duncan

    Alchemist's Apprentice
    by Dave Duncan

    Ace, 2008. 320 pp. Tempted though I was to start this review by anointing The Alchemist's Apprentice my favorite fantasy novel yet, I don't think I can actually do that.

    For one thing, there are about 35 other Duncan fantasy novels with claim to that title. Duncan keeps getting better and better, yet I still have a soft spot for many of his classic fantasies, so it is difficult to definitively argue that The Alchemist's Apprentice is his best fantasy novel ever.

    For another, I'm not convinced this is a fantasy novel, though it is clearly being marketed as such and will undoubtedly be enjoyed by Duncan's regular fantasy readership. But swashbuckling action aside, this is really an historical mystery, a who-done-it set in the Medici's Venice. True, there is one brief scene in which our hero consults a demon, but even here the description of the necromancy is entirely consistent with contemporary Renaissance accounts (such as that in Benvenuto Cellini's autobiography) so feels more like 'historical depiction' than 'fantasy'.

And then there is the whole Nostradamus angle. Frankly, if this had been by anyone else, I don't think I could have gotten past the backcover blurb. A novel about Nostradamus working to solve a murder in which he himself is implicated? New Age nonsense meets National Inquiry headlines? But fortunately, Duncan's wry humour prevails and the book isn't really about that Nostradamus — not Michel Nostradamus — but his great nephew Felipe. Duncan is thus free to characterize Nostradamus as a cranky, manipulative old fraud without having to worry about offending against true believers or historical accuracy. And it is kind of fun to speculate how Nostradamus would have fared as a detective navigating through the convoluted political and commercial conspiracies of Medici Venice.

The story unfolds, however, as a first person narrative by Nostradamus' dashing apprentice, Alfeo Zeno. Zeno is no mere chronicler of his Maestro's genius, but a fast-talking, quick-witted, lovable young rogue in his own right. Zeno deftly avoids the machinations of various spies, commercial agents, and the Medici's police, while advancing his own affair with the most desirable courtesan in the city. In the best who-done-it tradition, everyone is a suspect, and Zeno has to weave his way through contradictory evidence, red herrings, and sudden insights to collect the evidence his Maestro has asked for, never quite knowing what the Maestro is after. I confess that Duncan also kept me guessing until the last, and kept me frantically turning pages long after I should have been abed. (I strongly advise setting the book aside until one has sufficient time to read it in one go, because once begun, it is impossible to put down.)

Filled with Machiavellian plotting, heart-stopping action, and convincing historical detail that makes Medici's Venice come alive, Alchemist's Apprentice is Duncan at his rollicking best.

Reprinted from NeoOpsis Magazine #10