Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

The Alchemist's Apprentice by Dave Duncan

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."

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest is my first foray into the steampunk genre and the first book I'd ever read by Priest. While I have a few gripes, I was not disappointed. Boneshaker is a fun adventure, full of zombies (in this alternate history tale they're called 'rotters'), airships, mad scientists, and flawed heroes.

Boneshaker was selected as one of Amazon's Best Books of 2009 as well as a Publisher's Weekly Best Books of 2009. It is also a Barnes & Noble November Feature Book. In addition, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association awarded Boneshaker a PNBA Book Award for 2010.

The background we are given for the story is this: While the American Civil War rages on, prospectors flock to the Pacific Northwest pursuing rumors of gold discovered in the frozen Klondike. In an effort to reach this gold, an inventor, Dr. Leviticus Blue, is commissioned to create the Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine, or Boneshaker for short. But, on its maiden test run, the Boneshaker goes out of control, devastating downtown Seattle and releasing a noxious vein of Blight gas that turns any who breathe it into mindless flesh-eaters. In the mishap, Dr. Blue goes missing and is presumed dead, leaving his pregnant widow, Briar Blue, to fend for herself. Much of central Seattle is abandoned, left to the rotters as a hundred foot wall is built around the city center in order to contain them.

Briar escapes to the outside, making a home for herself and her soon-to-be born son, Ezekiel. Life is not easy for either of them, and as we enter the story sixteen years after the Boneshaker incident, we find Briar working a difficult industrial job, scorned by most, and with no friends but her own son. Zeke, who has grown up without a father and, worse, grown up listening to the accusations that float along with the mysterious tale of what happened that fateful day, nevertheless maintains faith that the incident was an accident, and that his father had nothing nefarious in mind when he inadvertently released the Blight gas into the city. So begins the story, with Zeke sneaking beneath the wall and into the Blight-infested Seattle, intent on finding evidence his father is innocent of people's many suspicions. Briar, upon learning of her son's dangerous adventure, has no choice but to follow.

Boneshaker is full of goodness: zombies, airships, polarized goggles (whose purpose is to detect Blight gas), gas masks, steampunk weapons (what better way to kick rotter ass?), a particularly mad and devious scientist/inventor, and a strong female lead who doesn't know when to quit. The story is fairly straightforward: boy gets himself into trouble, mom has to bail him out. Along the way, adventure ensues as one tries to find the other. Things get a bit more complicated when they each find that the city has not been abandoned completely, and that there is, in fact, a whole society of sorts who still call Seattle home. Not all of these denizens are friendly, either.

While I did find Boneshaker enjoyable, don't expect a riveting page turner. There's little real suspense, and while the Boneshaker mystery hangs over the story right up until the end, the nicely done twist in those last few pages comes quick. The remainder of the story is basically Briar searching the city for Zeke, while Zeke initially is seeking his parents' old house and clues as to what really happened to his father.

The rotters are always there, and they force certain actions by the characters, but they're never really a huge threat. Yes, our heroes must run from them and, a handful of times, fight them off, but no damage is ever really done. If you're wary of zombie fiction because of the flesh-eating characteristic, fear not: No flesh is eaten in this book.

I do have one gripe in particular about the plot. Zeke uses an old abandoned sewer tunnel to get underneath the wall. No problem there. But when Briar traces his steps and attempts to enter the city the same way… Look out! Earthquake! And, with that, the sewer tunnel is blocked, forcing Briar to seek other options. In my opinion, this was a poorly chosen, ill-timed plot device, and a fairly unbelievable coincidence.

I will say this about Boneshaker, though: It's a fun read. There's enough going on with the gas masks and the inventions and a cast of seedy, not-sure-who's-side-they're-on characters that I didn't put the book down for long. The ending, too, has a bit of a twist, with Zeke's question about his father answered once and for all. Boneshaker is a fun read and, even better, the first in a series so you’ve got plenty more to explore in Priest’s dystopian, alternate history world.