The Alchemist's Code is the second in the series of fantasy/mystery tales penned by Dave Duncan and set in the historic, beautiful, and oftentimes dangerous world of 16th century Venice. I reviewed the first book in the series, The Alchemist's Apprentice, not too long ago, and since I found that first book such an enjoyable read, I was eager to jump into this one.
Once more, Alfeo Zeno is our narrator as the ruling body of Venice, the Council of Ten, calls upon Alfeo's master, Nostradamus, to crack encoded messages which they fear contain state secrets. Espionage, a lover's tryst, and a friend from Alfeo's past become intertwined as Alfeo must face down a supernatural threat and his own execution for practicing witchcraft as he is forced to invoke supernatural powers of his own to stop the spy's machinations.
Much like its predecessor, The Alchemist's Code is beautifully written. Duncan does his best to display his command of the written word with eloquent prose and a plethora of words that had me using my Kindle’s automatic dictionary feature often.
Alfeo's descriptions of the political and social aspects of Venice are more terse in this book as compared to the previous novel. The same goes for his telling of ancillary characters. In other words, Duncan assumes we've read the first book in the series and don't need this information in as much depth this time around. The doge (the leader of Venice, sort of like a duke but without the power) plays a smaller role in this second book, and his relationship to Alfeo as well as their history does not play the part it did in book one. The same goes for Violetta, Alfeo's lover who also just happens to be a prostitute to members of high society. Filiberto Vasco, however, plays a major role in this novel. Vasco is Alfeo's chief adversary in government, and the one who would most like to see Alfeo burn at the stake for witchcraft. Duncan never goes into great depth regarding this rivalry, though it can likely be attributed to professional jealousy. That, and the two grew up together, and so they share history.
All that being said, while reading the first book in the series will give you good background information about these extra characters and the setting, it is by no means necessary to have read that first book before reading this one. Still, there's also no reason not to; both are well-worth the read.
Duncan once again does a nice job with characterization. Alfeo is a likeable, personable, and sometimes humorous narrator. Nostradamus is aloof, stubborn, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is tempting fate by challenging Venice's authority but always with an ace up his sleeve. Even Vasco, who makes no secret of his desire to see Alfeo trip and fall, shines through because of his loyalty to the state and underlying desire to do (what he thinks, anyway) is right.