Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

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.

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man's War by John Scalzi is a book I've wanted to read for a while. This premiere novel by Scalzi follows in the tradition of such military science fiction novels as The Forever War, Ender's Game, and Starship Troopers. Needless to say, I went in with high expectations. While I wasn't disappointed, once the story got rolling it followed a fairly predictable pattern.

Scalzi is a prolific blogger with a twenty year publishing history behind him. Old Man's War was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2006. It is the first book in a series set in Scalzi's futuristic world, though Old Man's War is a complete story unto itself. Subsequent books in the series include The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, and Zoe's Tale.

The story is this: John Perry, a 75 year old widower, Earth-bound his entire life, enlists with the CDF—or Colonial Defense Force—in exchange for the promise of a new, youthful life. The catch is that no one who enlists knows for sure how the CDF accomplishes their end of the bargain. But with nothing keeping him on Earth, Perry signs on the dotted line. Next thing he knows he's off into distant space. The CDF keeps their end of the bargain and more, but there's a catch: in exchange for his new life, Perry and others like him must commit the next ten years of their lives to service in the CDF as a frontline soldier.

Turns out the universe is not a very nice place, and humans have lots and lots of enemies. It is therefore the CDF's primary responsibility to protect human civilizations and colonies and to wage war on any alien species that endangers Man's predetermined right to colonize space.

Scalzi does a fine job detailing John Perry's emotional turmoil over letting go of his old life. We're also treated to a sometimes humorous, sometimes grave rendition of what a futuristic boot camp might be like. From there, the story largely follows Perry's training, the friendships and bonds he forms, and his subsequent assignment and advance through the ranks. There are battles worthy of any military sci-fi novel and a menagerie of aliens, all quite nasty and most certainly not friendly to Perry and his fellow soldiers.

Where Old Man's War stumbles is in certain aspects of the narration. The story is told in the first person from Perry's perspective, and while this works wonderfully in certain places, like when Perry begins to learn what the CDF is all about and what it's up against, it's not so good in others, as in when Perry finds himself in the thick of things. Scalzi ignores the "show, don't tell" rule, and slips into a telling sort of style that is ultimately too much of a detachment from what's going on, which is exactly the opposite of what I expected given that we're being told the story from Perry's perspective.

That's not to say that Old Man's War isn't a good novel. It's entertaining, with an interesting and sometimes terrifying gamut of alien civilizations and a vision of what our own future might be like someday if and when we begin colonizing space. There's plenty of humor, too, with Scalzi's colorful master sergeant character leading the ranks of supporting characters. I was reading some of his lines out loud to my wife who, as former Army, got a good laugh, too.

Old Man's War is an enjoyable read and I've already got the subsequent novels on my future reading list.

Book Review: The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont

I had great hopes for The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont. Billed as a pulp adventure starring none other than some of the most famous writers of that genre as the main characters, TCDCP promised mystery, suspense, action, damsels, and more. Unfortunately, after putting this one down the only thing I felt I'd been given was confusion.

I even tried applying the rules for knowing when to stop reading. Page fifty… a little frustrated with the pacing and jumping around, but I kept reading. Page one hundred… I barely made it this far. The disappointment was palpable. Last, I applied the Page 99 test. Hmmm… Chinese guy swinging deadly chain at one of our heroes. Intriguing, but not enough.

I really wanted it to work, too. With names like William Gibson, Lester Dent, H.P. Lovecraft, L. Ron Hubbard, Louis L'Amour, and Chester Himes all playing roles in the story, who wouldn't want it to?

Looking at the summary from Amazon.com, I almost want to pick it up again and give it a second shot. Here's the description. Judge for yourself.

Malmont's debut thriller reads like pages torn from the pulp magazines to which it pays nostalgic homage. It's 1937, and the nation's two top pulp writers—William Gibson, author of novels featuring caped crime fighter "The Shadow," and Lester Dent, the creator of do-gooder hero Doc Savage—are trying to solve real-life mysteries that each hopes will give him bragging rights as the world's best yarn spinner. Gibson follows rumors that pulp colleague H.P. Lovecraft was murdered to the fog-shrouded Providence, R.I., waterfront. Dent tracks clues to an impossible killing through the bowels of New York's Chinatown. As the two adventures dovetail, they spawn sinuous subplots involving tong wars, secret chemical warfare, pirate mercenaries, kidnappings, revolution in China and weird science run amok.

Unfortunately, my reading pile grows almost daily, so if it does go back on the pile it'll go at the bottom.

So, the primary reason I had to put this one down: within the first 100 pages or so the story jumps and skips and hops around to the point where I couldn't tell if the entire novel is simply a collection of short "episodes" (they're called that rather than chapters) or if Malmont was actually going somewhere with it. If he was, I never got there. I did not see a consistency with the characters or a storyline, though I did thumb through latter parts and there did seem to be the same characters from one episode to another at least. Still, how many pages is Malmont going to make me wade through before getting to the good stuff?

Maybe I'm just missing something on this one. It's rated 4 out of 5 stars by 44 reviewers at Amazon. One of the lower-rated reviews, though, seems to reiterate my feelings:

I really would have liked to love this book, but it has become the greatest sleep aid ever. I am not sure how long it will take me to get through it! The story is all over the place and really doesn't make a lick of sense so far.

Exactly.

However, I tend towards open-mindedness, so if someone wants to enlighten me on what I'm missing, please leave a comment below. I could be completely wrong about The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie is a gritty, in-your-face, rollicking good time of a story. The depth of the various characters is quite well done as they each come alive in their own way and the story, while long (527 pages; this is only the first book of a three part series), is intriguing and suspenseful enough that I had more than a few long reading nights with this one. Abercrombie successfully navigates away from many of the fantasy tropes we all know so well, yet utterly fails to avoid others. Still, The Blade Itself is full of compelling storytelling.

Abercrombie has assembled quite a cast of characters: Logen Ninefingers, a Northern barbarian also know as the Bloody Nine; Sand van Glokta, once a talented soldier but now a state inquisitor; Jezal dan Luthar, an arrogant soldier/nobleman who also happens to be the Union's best swordsman; Major Collem West, Luthar's superior, and Ardee West, Collem's sister; and Bayaz, an ornery old wizard said to be the long thought dead First of the Magi.

It's the depth and personality infused into each of these characters that makes them interesting. Many stereotypes are avoided: Logen is savage in combat, but thoughtful and full of remorse and regret otherwise. Bayaz is a crotchety old wizard with a bit of a temper (sort of the anti-Gandalf). Glokta is cruel, conniving, and sly, but wishful (sometimes for his own death, other times for his past glory) and pathetic to the point where I found myself wanting him to succeed at times though he is perhaps the cruelest character of all.

Glokta, to me, was the most interesting character of the bunch, in fact. Bayaz calls him "the most honest man in the city" at one point. Considering that he is a state inquisitor, authorized to use torture to extract information, this statement might seem odd at first glance. But Glokta is a man torn between doing what he's ordered to by the Lord High Inquisitor while satisfying the remnants of his conscious. Of all people, Glokta has nothing to gain through ambition. Once a promising soldier and swordsman, he was captured by the enemy and tortured for years. Upon a peace settlement, he was returned home, but only as a vague caricature of his former self. Broken physically, he takes up the role of torturer himself, though he never seems to delight in the practice. He understands the pain he inflicts on others better than anyone else, though, and is quite effective in his job.

The writing is superb, though this is no literary piece. This is "hard" fantasy, with plenty of violence, gruesome deaths, and general mayhem. Right from the beginning, we're thrown into it as Logen finds himself in a fight for his life (Logen finds himself in a lot of those). 'Tooth and nail' is a good way to describe the combat scenes; they're gritty and hard-hitting, and while some take pages they're told in a fast-paced manner that I found myself rapidly reading through.

While Abercrombie does a nice job of avoiding some of the typical fantasy stereotypes, he falls right into others. It becomes evident somewhere in the latter third of the book that what we have is an ancient evil, thought destroyed, returning, and a quest led by Bayaz, who spends his time surreptitiously assembling our various heroes into a not-so-merry band. The story concludes with this group about to set off for "the ends of the world" to find some relic or some such thing to use to stop the otherwise impending doom.

In all, though, those tropes play a minor role in the story told in this first book. The Blade Itself is full of action, adventure, magic, bloodshed, romance, drama, and intrigue. Good storytelling and colorful characters set a high bar for what is Abercrombie's first book in The First Law trilogy. I plan to purchase and review Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings, books two and three in the series, respectively, in the not too distant future.

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."