The Alchemist's Pursuit
by Dave Duncan
Review by Sam Lubell
Ace Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441016785
Date: 03 March 2009 List Price $15.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The Alchemist's Pursuit is marketed as fantasy but it is really a mystery with slight fantasy flavor. In this third book in the series of the adventures of Doctor Nostradamus and his apprentice Alfeo in a Renaissance-era Venice, the pair are hired by Alfeo's love, the courtesan Violetta, to find out who is strangling the city's other courtesans. The result is a mystery that requires Alfeo to uncover secrets the rulers of Venice have long buried.
The initial investigation by Alfeo and Violetta as to why Violetta's strangled friend was found with her jewels and expensive clothes intact is diverted when a dying nobleman asks to see Alfeo. Although the apprentice arrives too late, he is able to question a servant and learns that the noble wanted Nostradamus to find the killer of another one of the courtesans. By questioning witnesses, Alfeo learns that one of the dead courtesans had an appointment with a client nicknamed Honeycat. Other questioning leads to Honeycat's true name, Zorzi Michiel, who eight years ago had murdered his father, one of Venice's senators. But Zorzi had been banished.
While the Council of Ten forbids Alfeo and Nostradamus to investigate past crimes, Alfeo reasons that it is the duty of every citizen to prevent future crimes. And in the course of trying to discover the strangler to prevent future murders, Alfeo finds himself examining Zorzi's patricide and whether he has returned to Venice. This results in questioning Zorzi's family, who are a fascinating set of characters especially Zorzi's half-brother, who sometimes seems a servant, sometimes a family member and Zorzi's mother who insists that Zorzi never killed his father.
Ultimately, Violetta must play bait to catch the killer, but can Alfeo figure out the killer's true identity before his love is added to the list of victims? The author plays fair but the answers will surprise all but the most skilled armchair detectives.
The fantasy elements in this book are even slighter than in past volumes. Alfeo reads tarot cards and Nostradamus gives a prophecy but neither makes much sense until after the events they describe. Only in the last couple of pages is a magical rationale given for what previously looked like luck. But by that point the mystery has been solved so mystery readers who do not like fantasy can easily ignore this interpretation and think of this as an historical mystery.
As usual Dave Duncan crafts a fun book with engaging characters – even the increasingly grumpy alchemist has his moments of charm. Violetta is especially interesting as it is never clear whether she suffers from multiple personality disorder or if Alfeo is just giving different names to her different moods. Alfeo, who, as an impoverished gentleman of noble birth and lowly apprentice, has access to many different levels of Venicean society, once again narrates the book.
Although the third book in a series, it is not necessary to read the others to understand The Alchemist's Pursuit as everything is explained. The book is ideal for readers who like mysteries with historical settings and do not mind venturing into the fantasy section. But fantasy readers who enjoyed Duncan's King's Blades or A Man of His Word books with lots of magic and swordplay, need to be aware that the fantasy elements in this book are extremely low-key.