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The Alchemist's Apprentice
Dave Duncan
Ace, 320 pages

The Alchemist's Apprentice
Dave Duncan
Dave Duncan is a former geologist and recipient of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Achievement Award. His previous works include two four-volume sagas, A Man of His Word and A Handful of Men. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.

Dave Duncan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Children of Chaos
SF Site Review: Tales of the King's Blades
SF Site Review: The Gilded Chain
SF Site Review: Future Indefinite
SF Site Review: The Great Game

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

What could be stranger than a dodecahedral planet? One might reasonably ask that question after reading a couple of Dave Duncan's latest titles and the answer, interestingly enough, is: a genuine historical setting. Renaissance Venice, as painted in The Alchemist's Apprentice is full of delightful detail that's far too daft to be fiction.

For example, the city is ruled by the Council of Ten, which has 17 members except when it is increased to 32 (a practice which spreads the blame wider, in case of reprisals). And it is possible for a penniless young apprentice to have his name in the respected Golden Book of Venetian nobility because one of his ancestors, fourteen generations before, was a Doge.

By contrast, the three entirely fictional laws of demonology are straightforward, as is the risky process for summoning a demon known as "Putrid" to lend assistance when events on the mortal plane are getting out of hand. You see, it seems that one of the procurators of San Marco was poisoned at a private dinner party attended by the legendary astrologer and physician, Maestro Nostradamus. And since alchemists are ever the object of suspicion, if the murderer cannot be found within three days, Nostradamus will be burned for witchcraft, along with his apprentice, Alfeo Zeno.

So it's up to young Zeno, with occasional imperious directions from his crotchety employer, to find a way of investigating some of the richest, most powerful and most private families of Venice -- a mission which naturally involves dazzling sartorial style, swordplay, gondola chases, mouth-watering cuisine, deadly poisons, foul dungeons, fine art, and a little assistance from the beautiful courtesan next door.

Zeno, as well as being a charming smartass, is in just the right position to play detective. Thanks to Nostradamus's work, Zeno knows almost everybody in Venice. He's on the inside of the nobility, yet poor enough to be on the outside as well, old enough to know much, but young enough to get away with... well, not murder, but certainly a lot of lesser misdemeanors. And the rest of the cast is equally strong, right down to the gondoliers and the barbarous English tourist, Sir Bellamy Feather.

Duncan obviously had a good time researching and writing this Venetian romp. Inasmuch as you could slot it into one genre, it's a classic whodunit, with a convoluted plot involving much political intrigue. Of course it's also historical, with strong fantasy elements, so its potential audience appeal should be very wide. And Duncan's many fans will be delighted.

A very entertaining read.

Copyright © 2007 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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