REVIEW: The Alchemist’s Apprentice by Dave Duncan
Reviewed by Karen Miller
I picked up this book because it’s by Dave Duncan. I really enjoy a lot of his work – not every series he’s released, some resonate more than others – and so hoped to enjoy this one, too. But I got a real shock when I opened it, because this one’s written in first person, a stylistic choice that usually puts me off. It’s not Duncan’s usual choice, either, which is why I wasn’t expecting it and perhaps, if it hadn’t been a Duncan novel, I might not have persevered. Which doubtless means I’m a flawed reader… but be that as it may…
The reasons the first person point of view worked for me in this instance are 1) because the writing is, as ever with Duncan, so polished, so fluent, so self-assured and so vibrant, it won me over, and 2)it’s not a very fantastical fantasy. In fact, it’s more of an historical whodunnit with supernatural overtones, which means the choice of first person really works for the story and not against it.
The Alchemist’s Apprentice is the story of one Alfeo Zeno, a young Venetian nobleman (by the skin of his teeth) apprenticed to Maestro Nostradamus, nephew of the famous clairvoyant. There’s been a high-profile murder involving a high-ranking official, and Nostradamus has been tasked to solve it before scandal destroys the government. Zeno is the Maestro’s eyes, ears and legs. He’s set on the task to uncover the miscreant, and in doing so, lands himself in all kinds of political and occult trouble.
Although the underlying dilemma is serious, the narrative contains some wonderfully sly, tongue-in-cheek humour. The balance of story momentum and great historical colour and scenery is perfectly achieved. The cast of characters is wide and varied, and each voice is unique. As a narrator, Zeno works extremely well. He’s bright, breezy, confiding, sarcastic, self-effacing and downright laugh-out-loud funny at times. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between him and Vasco, a government agent.
If you enjoy mysteries and books with a strong historical flavour, and don’t mind that there’s not a huge amount of ‘fantasy’ in this tale, it could well be something you’ll enjoy. There are at least two more Zeno adventures planned, and I for one am looking forward to his next outing.