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by Martha Wells

Avon Eos


359pp/$23.00/March 1998

The Death of the Necromancer
Cover by Liz Kenyon

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The real star of Martha Wells's third novel, The Death of the Necromancer, is the incredibly detailed city she permits her characters to inhabit.  Seemingly an amalgam of Victorian London and eighteenth century Paris with a soupçon of magic thrown in, Vienne comes alive as a complex city with a long history.  Into this background, Wells places a Sherlock Holmes character (Inspector Ronsarde) and a Moriarty figure (Nicholas Valiarde), but then turns the tables by telling the tale from Moriarty/Valiarde's point of view.

The plot seems relatively simple.  Nicholas is attempting to avenge the execution of his foster father, Edouard Viller, who was framed for being a necromancer several years before the novel opens.  To achieve his goal, Nicholas has become the godfather of Vienne crime.  On one of the last heists before turning his attention to Montesq, the villainous nobleman responsible for Viller's death, Nicholas runs across Doctor Octave, a spiritualist who may or may not be using necromancy, but is definitely using some of Viller's apparatus.  Nicholas and his accomplices get sidetracked by investigating Doctor Octave and the possibility he is a necromancer.

Wells has set novels in this world before, and the depth of her knowledge of the setting shows.  When Nicholas and his companions move through Vienne, it is not a static city, but a city with a history.  Buildings and streets are built on the ruins of older structures, long forgotten by the denizens of the world.  The characters have histories as well.  Nicholas can remember a time when the sorcerer Arisilde was not an opium addict.  Arisilde (in moments of lucidity) remembers that he new Madelaine's grandmothers years earlier.  When the plot's pace slackens or the mystery fails to entrance, these characters and the setting manage to retain the readers attention.

Unfortunately, for all the running around the characters do in an interesting location, the mystery never really grabs the reader.  The main problem for this may be in the character of Nicholas, himself.  Wells would have the reader believe that Nicholas is so bent on revenge against Montesq that he would spend years in an elaborate plan to discredit the nobleman, including creating an underworld empire and a persona under which he rules that empire, but on the eve of his revenge he would get sidetracked by an apparent con man who has (at that point) only a minor influence on Nicholas.  Even as the mystery surrounding Doctor Octave grows, Nicholas's involvement fails to make sense.

Given the twists and turns of the plot, Wells does a wonderful job of keeping The Death of the Necromancer from becoming a comedy of errors.  Her characters make some connections and miss others, but always within the realm of the plausible.  The reader never groans because their actions during the investigation seem unlikely to occur to anyone with half a brain.

While The Death of the Necromancer is worth reading for the characters and setting, it will be even more interesting to see what, if anything, Wells decides to do with her world in future novels.  With luck, she'll find plots which fully do justice to the world she has created, examining the strange social structure which results in mixing the various centuries with magic.

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