Maestro, doctor, alchemist, seer. Nostradamus is all of these things in The Alchemist's Apprentice by Dave Duncan. Such stature is not always of benefit, though, for when Nostradamus foretells an untimely end for a well-to-do government official and that official winds up dead—murdered by poison—Nostradamus himself is suspected of perpetrating the crime to enhance his own reputation as a soothsayer. Now, it's up to the Maestro's assistant, Alfeo Zeno, to clear his master's name and keep the both of them free of Venice's particular form of justice, for Alfeo knows that if his master is found guilty then it's over for him as well.
So begins The Alchemist's Apprentice, a beautifully written fantasy/mystery tale set in the grandeur of 1500's Venice. Duncan's Venezia does differ from the real one in some ways. For one, magic is real, and while its practitioners are persecuted by the church, this stops neither Nostradamus nor Alfeo from its practice. But it is a fine line the two of them walk, for while Nostradamus has the ear of the Doge (pronounced 'doj'), there are others in the government who would like nothing better than to expose Nostradamus as a fraud.
The Alchemist's Apprentice is told in the first person narrative, with Alfeo Zeno as our storyteller. Alfeo is a twenty-something descendant of the highest nobility whose family name is written in the "Golden Book." But generations ago the Zeno's fell on hard times; while Alfeo carries himself as befits his station, he does not lead a life of leisure. As the apprentice of Nostradamus, he works hard as a scribe and gopher while sharpening his Tarot card reading skills under the watchful eye of his master. Alfeo also serves as the eyes and ears of the elder Nostradamus, something which the Maestro takes full advantage of in trying to clear both their names.
While the back cover description makes it sound as if Alfeo is the one leading the investigation, it is really Nostradamus pointing him in the right direction and steering him back on course the few times he strays from the path. But it is most certainly Alfeo who finds himself most at risk as he becomes embroiled in the politics of Venice and especially as he closes in on the real killer.
In terms of style and language, The Alchemist's Apprentice is a thing of beauty. I certainly do not mean that in a literary sense; you won't be overloaded with uselessly elegant prose. But it is a testament to good writing that really helped set the tone. Keep your dictionary close, too; you'll likely need it at least a little.
Duncan picked an excellent setting for his tale, weaving in the dangerous politics of Renaissance-era Venice with the often foreboding, mysterious reputation of Nostradamus. Alfeo provides the light in that darkness and the grounding for the reader, especially as the tale is told from his perspective. Through him, we are introduced to the many different sides of life in Venice, from the highest via his visits to the Doge's Palace (which is adjoined by the torture chambers and prison from which Casanova escaped) to the lowest when he enters the Jewish Ghetto (where Jews were virtually imprisoned from sunset to sunrise).
This tale was all the more poignant for me because my wife and I just visited Italy, including Venice, earlier this year. I can tell you that I was hanging on Duncan's usages of the Doge's Palace, the prisons, the Golden Staircase, and, of course, the Piazza San Marco and Basilica di San Marco. This is the sort of book I would have loved to have read before our trip to Venice (perhaps both before and after would be best).
Duncan also does a fine job with his characters. Nostradamus is just what you might expect: aloof at times, often mysterious, but always with a hint of mischief about him, as if he knows something no one else does (oftentimes, that is exactly the case). Alfeo is likeable and an easy narrator to follow along with. Other characters include a colorful ensemble of house assistants and Nostradamus's personal gondolier, whose two sons add some levity.
The Alchemist's Apprentice is the first of three books in this Venetian fantasy/mystery series. The second is The Alchemist's Code, and the third, The Alchemist's Pursuit. I thought this first book was an enjoyable read and I'm looking forward to reading more tales of Alfeo Zeno and "the Maestro."