Publisher: Ace, 2007
Sub-genre: Historical, Swords and sorcery
Read the full (spoiler-free) review here.
When one of the guests at an exclusive function suddenly falls down dead, though, Nostrodamus is the first suspect. As both physician and one known to dabble in the occult, the authorities decide he was the member of the gathering with the best opportunity for murder, especially considering he had recently cast the victim a dark horoscope. Fortunately for him, though, his prophecies warned him in enough time he could be out of the house when the officials come to collect and interrogate him. They manage to apprehend his significantly less lucky apprentice Alfeo, however, who is kept imprisoned all evening in an attempt to learn the whereabouts of his master and to scare the both of them. When Alfeo is finally released, he and Nostrodamus set out to find the murderer so they can present the case to the Council of Ten, clearing their own names and seeing justice done.
The story is told entirely from Alfeo's perspective, which provides plenty of action, since he does most of the actual detective work. His voice gives a lovely cynical tone to everything and brings a dry wit to even the darker scenes, where the very real possibility of torture is hanging over his head. He's a delightfully human protagonist, distracted by women even when he knows better, annoyed to find virtues in men he dislikes, and as motivated by personal gain as anyone else. For all this, though, he's clever and never quite lets his biases get the better of him, even when he'd really like to.
Duncan's old Italy is a richly detailed place, full of politics and subtle magics. The political hierarchy, the modes of transportation, the manner of dress and common pastimes all come into play without relying on long descriptive passages, making the story's backdrop as lively as any of the characters. Which is not to say the characters are lacking; I loved the quirks of the secondary characters, particularly Violetta, the ever-changing courtesan Alfeo fancies, Giorgio, the gondolier with more children than the old woman in the shoe, and Nostrodamus himself, portrayed here as an irritable but hyper intelligent gnome-like person (and incidentally, nephew to the legendary figure we think of when the name Nostrodamus is brought up).
Basically, The Alchemist's Apprentice was a very memorable read, the type of story where all the subtleties in prose and character development come together to create the sort of world you can lose yourself in. It's not going to hit you over the head (although there is a nifty plot twist near the end); it's the sort of thing that needs a bit of deliberation, and in fact the more I think about the story, the better I think I liked it.