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The Alchemist's Apprentice    by Dave Duncan order for
Alchemist's Apprentice
by Dave Duncan
Order:  USA  Can
Ace, 2007 (2007)
Softcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

If you take Rex Stout's Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe (who rarely leaves his mansion), transpose them to old Venice under the rule of the Doges and Council of Ten, and toss in alchemy, magic and the odd demon, the result could well be The Alchemist's Apprentice. It's something a bit different from Dave Duncan's previous fantasy adventures - like his Great Game and King's Blade series, or even his recent Children of Chaos.

The story is narrated by Duncan's Archie-equivalent, Alfeo Zeno. Son of impoverished Venetian nobility, he's apprenticed to the legendary alchemist, physician, astrologer, and clairvoyant Maestro Nostradamus, a snarly, frail old man who rarely leaves home, using Alfeo to run his errands. They live in sumptuous surroundings in the Barbolano palace, attended by a gondolier named Giorgio and his ever increasing family, and by mute, gentle giant Bruno.

The mystery begins with a poisoning, that might have been aimed at the Doge himself, at a book viewing soirée attended by the Maestro, who risks being accused of the crime. Warned by a prophecy, Nostradamus makes himself unavailable, leaving Alfeo to deal with officials (luckily Alfeo had interpreted the Maestro's prophecy, which he supplemented with his own Tarot reading). After being arrested, Alfeo is brought before Doge Moro, who gives him and his master three days to solve the crime - or leave town.

Also present at the party was Alfeo's courtesan friend, the lovely, multi-faceted, and very intelligent Violetta. She lives next door and Alfeo visits her frequently, taking death-defying leaps between their buildings. She ably assists in the investigation. And, just like Archie, Alfeo interviews suspects, or brings them to meet with the Maestro, while officers of the law yearn to catch him in wrongdoing. Alfeo himself becomes a target of violence, and there are further deaths.

The dénouement even matches the usual Nero Wolfe formula, with Alfeo assigned the job of collecting all those present at the original soirée for a reenactment of events - during which, of course, the killer is revealed, with a sneaky twist at the ending to keep readers on their toes. The Alchemist's Apprentice is a thoroughly engaging series debut, of interest to both fantasy and mystery fans. I look forward to more.

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