The Alchemistís Apprentice
††††††††††† Tempted though I was to start this review by anointing The Alchemistís Apprentice my favourite fantasy novel yet, I donít 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 Alchemistís Apprentice is his best fantasy novel ever.
††††††††† For another, Iím not convinced this is a fantasy novel, though it is clearly being marketed as such and will undoubtedly be enjoyed by Duncanís regular fantasy readership. But swashbuckling action aside, this is really an historical mystery, a who-done-it set in the Mediciís Florence. 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 Celliniís autobiography) so feels more like Ďhistorical depictioní than Ďfantasyí.
††††††††† And then there is the whole Nostradamus angle. Frankly, if this had been by anyone else, I donít think I could have gotten past the back cover 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, Duncanís wry humour prevails and the book isnít really about that Nostradamus Ė not Michel Nostradamus ó but his great nephew Felippo. 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 Florence.
††††††††† The story unfolds, however, as a first person narrative by Nostradamusí dashing apprentice, Alfeo Zeno. Zeno is no mere chronicler of his Maestroís 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 Mediciís 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 Mediciís Florence come alive, Alchemistís Apprentice is Duncan at his rollicking best.
Review by Robert Runtť.
Originally in Neo-opsis issue 10.
Ethical disclosure: Reviewer Robert Runte, and Neo-opsis owners Karl and Stephanie Johanson were friends with Dave Duncan.
Dave Duncan at Vcon 2006
Dave Duncan died on October 29, 2018. Dr. Robert Runte made a presentation at Daveís memorial, on February 2, 2019. Also on the video is an excerpt of an interview Karl Johanson did with Dave Duncan in 2015.