Interesting Words: The Alchemist's Code

One of the things I often do as I'm reading a novel or short story is keep track of words whose definitions I do not know or that I find interesting. Either way, these interesting words are ones I feel might be of use in my own writing. That, and it's good to expand one's vocabulary every once in a while.

Read my review of The Alchemist's Code.

I was able to make note of quite a few while reading Dave Duncan's The Alchemist's Code simply because Duncan was pushing my vocabulary knowledge at almost every page. Kindle's annotation feature made this process very easy; no more pen and paper notes. I especially like that I can sync all of my annotations to the Kindle for PC app I have running on my laptop. That way I've got the information right there on my screen as I'm, say, writing this post.

Here are the words with definitions that I found interesting.

alembic: an obsolete kind of container used for distillation; two retorts connected by a tube

appurtenances:  equipment consisting of miscellaneous articles needed for a particular operation

atelier: a studio especially for an artist or designer

bombast: pompous or pretentious talk or writing

brocade (gown): thick heavy expensive material with a raised pattern

calcining: heat a substance so that it oxidizes or reduces

casements: a window sash opening on hinges that are generally attached to the upright side of its frame; windows at either side of a larger window that open via a lever

dilettantes: an amateur who engages in an activity without serious intentions and who pretends to have knowledge

equerry: an official charged with the care of the horses of princes or nobles

ermine (cape): the expensive white fur of the ermine

escutcheon: a shield; especially one displaying a coat of arms; a flat protective covering (on a door or wall etc) to prevent soiling by dirty fingers

fusty: stale and unclean smelling

infrangible: difficult or impossible to break or separate into parts

iniquitous:  characterized by iniquity; wicked because it is believed to be a sin

kahve: coffee

lighter: a flatbottom boat for carrying heavy loads (especially on canals)

loggia: a roofed arcade or gallery with open sides stretching along the front or side of a building; often at an upper level

mendacity: the tendency to be untruthful

mezzanine:  intermediate floor just above the ground floor; floor above the ground floor but below subsequent ones

moue: a disdainful pouting grimace

mountebank: a flamboyant deceiver; one who attracts customers with tricks or jokes

nostrum: hypothetical remedy for all ills or diseases; once sought by the alchemists

octogenarian: someone whose age is in the eighties

phlogiston: a hypothetical substance once believed to be present in all combustible materials and to be released during burning

portmanteau: a large travelling bag made of stiff leather

preceptor: teacher at a university of college

puce: a color varying from dark purplish brown to dark red

retort: a vessel where substances are distilled or decomposed by heat

rostrum: a platform raised above the surrounding level to give prominence to the person on it

rubicund:  inclined to a healthy reddish color often associated with outdoor life

sanctimonious: excessively or hypocritically pious

scrivener: someone employed to make written copies of documents and manuscripts


noun: an entrance equipped with a hatch; especially a passageway between decks of a ship
verb: to move about or proceed hurriedly

strappado: torture in which a person's hands and tied behind their back and they are lifted off the ground by a rope tied to their wrists and that allowed to drop until their fall is checked by the rope

taffeta: a crisp smooth lustrous fabric

terrazzo: flooring material consisting of chips of marble or granite set in concrete and polished smooth

tippet: a woman's fur shoulder cape with hanging ends; often consisting of the whole fur of a fox or marten

triptych:  art consisting of a painting or carving (especially an altarpiece) on three panels (usually hinged together)

vellum: fine parchment prepared from the skin of a young animal e.g. a calf or lamb

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The Alchemist's Code by Dave Duncan

The Alchemist's Code is the second in the series of fantasy/mystery tales penned by Dave Duncan and set in the historic, beautiful, and oftentimes dangerous world of 16th century Venice. I reviewed the first book in the series, The Alchemist's Apprentice, not too long ago, and since I found that first book such an enjoyable read, I was eager to jump into this one.

Once more, Alfeo Zeno is our narrator as the ruling body of Venice, the Council of Ten, calls upon Alfeo's master, Nostradamus, to crack encoded messages which they fear contain state secrets. Espionage, a lover's tryst, and a friend from Alfeo's past become intertwined as Alfeo must face down a supernatural threat and his own execution for practicing witchcraft as he is forced to invoke supernatural powers of his own to stop the spy's machinations.

Much like its predecessor, The Alchemist's Code is beautifully written. Duncan does his best to display his command of the written word with eloquent prose and a plethora of words that had me reaching for the dictionary a couple of dozen times. The Alchemist's Code was the first eBook I purchased for my Kindle; the built-in dictionary was a godsend.

Alfeo's descriptions of the political and social aspects of Venice are more terse in this book as compared to the previous novel. The same goes for his telling of ancillary characters. In other words, Duncan assumes we've read the first book in the series and don't need this information in as much depth this time around. The doge (the leader of Venice, sort of like a duke but without the power) plays a smaller role in this second book, and his relationship to Alfeo as well as their history does not play the part it did in book one. The same goes for Violetta, Alfeo's lover who also just happens to be a prostitute to members of high society. Filiberto Vasco, however, plays a major role in this novel. Vasco is Alfeo's chief adversary in government, and the one who would most like to see Alfeo burn at the stake for witchcraft. Duncan never goes into great depth regarding this rivalry, though it can likely be attributed to professional jealousy. That, and the two grew up together, and so they share history.

All that being said, while reading the first book in the series will give you good background information about these extra characters and the setting, it is by no means necessary to have read that first book before reading this one. Still, there's also no reason not to; both are well-worth the read.

Duncan once again does a nice job with characterization. Alfeo is a likeable, personable, and sometimes humorous narrator. Nostradamus is aloof, stubborn, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is tempting fate by challenging Venice's authority but always with an ace up his sleeve. Even Vasco, who makes no secret of his desire to see Alfeo trip and fall, shines through because of his loyalty to the state and underlying desire to do (what he thinks, anyway) is right.

The Alchemist's Code is a well-written, enjoyable read, full of mystery, intrigue, and action. I'll be picking up the next in the series, The Alchemist's Pursuit, soon.