The Alchemist's Apprentice
by Dave Duncan
Cover Artist: Jim Griffin
Review by Sam Lubell
Ace Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441014798
Date: 06 March, 2007 List Price $14.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Once people thought that mystery stories could not be told in the fantasy genre. How could there be a mystery when a magic user could just look in a crystal ball and come up with the killer's identity? Then came Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series (in the 1960s and 1970s) about a detective in an alternate world where magic worked. The trick to a fantasy mystery, Garrett had discovered, was to limit the magic and treat it like a forensic tool, much like all the science on the various CSI shows. That is what Dave Duncan does in The Alchemist's Apprentice, a fantasy-mystery set in Venice during the Renaissance.
Alfeo Zeno, an impoverished nobleman, serves as narrator and title character as he is apprenticed to Maestro Nostradamus, who is an alchemist, astrologer, doctor, and secretly prophet and magician. In this world, some magic does exist, as both Nostradamus and Zeno can summon demons and call up visions of the future. But magic powers alone are not enough when Procurator Orseolo dies, apparently of poison, under circumstances that make Nostradamus the logical suspect. Worse yet, the doge (ruler of Venice) was attending the party incognito to view some rare manuscripts, raising the treasonous possibility that the poison was meant for him. Alfeo has only three days to solve the mystery and clear his master's name or they both will be burned for witchcraft.
In some ways, the book is a classic mystery. Alfeo questions the witnesses to the incident as well as others who might have a motive. Clues are gathered and there is even the familiar scene where the crime-solvers gather the suspects together to reenact the crime. Even after that, Duncan has another twist up his (or rather Nostradamus') sleeve. The author plays fair with the reader too. The clues are all there for the reader to find and the murderer is one of the many people Alfeo at least briefly considers. Ultimately, for all the magic, it is brainpower that solves the case.
In other ways, the book is very much a fantasy novel. Alfeo gets clues from tarot cards and the hard-to-decipher prophecies of Nostradamus. He even summons a demon for help, which is a very dangerous act as demons try to trick and betray their masters. There are swordfights, temptation in different forms, courtesans disguised as nuns, political scheming, and spies. The author also makes good use of the setting as the characters travel the canals of Venice by gondola, occasionally paying extra to silence the gondolier's singing.
Dave Duncan has always been good with innocent main characters and Alfeo shows this mastery. He complains just enough to seem a real apprentice but is very persistent and loyal to Nostradamus, even as the old sage never tells him the full truth. Nostradamus is mysterious and a bit irritating, but in a likable curmudgeonly way. Then there is Violetta, a courtesan (and occasional bed-partner of Alfeo) who is either a supreme actress or sufferer of multiple personality disorder. Naturally, she was at the book party so Alfeo must at least entertain the possibility of her being the killer. And there is a nice rivalry, with occasional truces, between Alfeo and Filberto Vasco, assistant to the chief of police who is assigned, unwillingly, to assist Alfeo in his investigation. He spends almost as much time collecting evidence against Alfeo, who mentally keeps count of how many lashes he will receive for each transgression, as he does helping the apprentice with the case.
As almost always with Duncan, this book is fun. Alfeo does not take himself too seriously, even while earnestly trying to solve the mystery. There's humor and adventure, mystery and magic, all rolled up in one package. This is light entertainment, lacking the depth of Duncan's Great Game series, the complex unfolding of the ramifications of a system of magic as in A Man of His Word series, or the grittier characterization of his King's Blades books. The Alchemist's Apprentice can be enjoyed by both mystery lovers and fantasy fans even those who don't generally read the other genre. The book is complete in itself, but Duncan has said that he is working on Alfeo's further adventurers.