Book Reviews Fantasy Historical Fantasy

The Alchemist's Pursuit by Dave Duncan

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The Alchemist's Pursuit by Dave Duncan is the third of his tales involving Nostradamus and his resourceful and daring apprentice, Alfeo Zeno. This time the Maestro is called upon by Violetta, courtesan and friend to Alfeo, who informs the pair that a dear friend of hers has been murdered. An impossible case—the woman was killed weeks ago, there are no witnesses, and the body spent considerable time in the water—turns into something much larger as the murders of other courtesans come to light and soon intersect with the guilty party in an eight year old patricide long thought solved.

So begins the latest installment in Duncan's Venetian fantasy/mystery series. The story follows the basic path set in the previous two novels, with Nostradamus being called on to solve an unsolvable crime and Alfeo, our narrator as always, charged with the elder Maestro's legwork. In this novel, however, we see Alfeo grow in new ways we’ve not seen before. Not only does he demonstrate an increased aptitude in the working of magic, but he also displays a newfound ability to navigate the perils of Venetian society and its politics. Descended from nobility, Alfeo's name is written in the Golden Book, though the family fortune long dried up and so he employs himself as an apprentice and assistant to Nostradamus.

Trained in the "dark arts," it is a fine line master and apprentice walk, for Venice is a Christian city, and so witchcraft is outlawed and its practice punishable by death. Yet the magic in Duncan's Alchemist novels is very subtle. In The Alchemist's Pursuit, besides for the usual divinations for which Nostradamus is famous, much of it culminates in the presence of a cat which assists Alfeo at times, though Alfeo suspects he may have attracted the attention of a demon who is helping him only to gain his confidence. It is a sometimes harrowing, sometimes humorous unfolding in which we finally learn the true purpose of this feline spirit.

As for the murders themselves, we soon learn that not one but three courtesans have been slain. A divination by Nostradamus shows that they are only the beginning, and so Alfeo must track down witnesses, avoid the law which has expressly prohibited Alfeo from investigating the crimes, and protect the woman he loves, Violetta, before she becomes the next victim.

All in all, The Alchemist's Pursuit is yet another gripping tale set in Dave Duncan’s (mostly) historically accurate Venice of yesteryear. Duncan's style is top-notch and his prose worthy of study (not in the literary sense so much, but more in the 'this is how modern fantasy tales should be written' sense). While I've had limited exposure to Duncan up to this point, it's books like The Alchemist's Pursuit that make me want to seek out other novels by the author. Also, I hope this is not the last we've seen of Alfeo and his irritable master. With such a marvelous setting and intriguing characters, I think Duncan has many more tales to tell in this world.

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