The Alchemist's Code
by Dave Duncan
Cover Artist: Jim Griffin
Review by Sam Lubell
Ace Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441015627
Date: 04 March 2008 List Price $14.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Dave Duncan's return to the Venice of alchemist, physician, and clairvoyant Maestro Nostradamus and his engaging apprentice Alfeo is as fun and exciting as the first book, The Alchemist's Apprentice. This book is less of a mystery, although there is a dead body that Alfeo is accused of killing, and more of a spy thriller.
The book begins when a ducal counselor hires the Maestro to find his missing daughter. The Maestro and even Alfeo immediately deduce she ran away with a lover, and are surprised to learn that the lover, Danese, turns out to be a childhood acquaintance of Alfeo's. Meanwhile, the Council of Ten that governs Venice asks the Maestro to locate a spy in its ranks based on a few pieces of paper written in code. He warns the council members that their enemy would use occult interference to destroy his usefulness to the Republic. Soon after, Danese is found dead outside the Maestro's residence, killed by Alfeo's rapier.
This is a fantasy with very limited use of magic. While the Maestro does have powers of prophecy, the results are often cryptic. Alfeo can summon fire, and in this book he learns how to summon visions in a fire and successfully dowses for a cursed book. Even these narrow skills must be used sparingly; when Alfeo uses his powers to burn the cursed book, he is accused of witchcraft which would result in him being burned at the stake. Much of what the Maestro does for his customers is more based in a con man's psychology and deductive reasoning than in actual magic.
Venice is an unusual setting for a fantasy novel. Duncan takes full advantage of the atmosphere with canals and gondoliers. There is also a sizable amount of political intrigue. Most of the characters are likable, especially the very earnest Alfeo and his genius mentor. The book is narrated in Alfeo's amusing voice. The rivalry between Alfeo and deputy Vizio Filiberto Vasco is very believable, but does not get in the way of their cooperating when they think it necessary.
Dave Duncan is an unfairly under-appreciated writer who deserves a wider readership. Still, his Alchemist's Apprentice books are light entertainments, lacking the constant invention and careful thought into the consequences of magic that went into his A Man of His Word series or the sophisticated philosophy of his Great Game series. They are ideal for readers of mysteries, spy stories, or historical novels who wish to dabble in fantasy without being overwhelmed by an elaborate magical world. Even though The Alchemist's Code is a sequel, readers do not need to have read The Alchemist's Apprentice first.