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The Alchemist's Code    by Dave Duncan order for
Alchemist's Code
by Dave Duncan
Order:  USA  Can
Ace, 2008 (2008)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Alchemist's Code follows The Alchemist's Apprentice in a fantastical mystery series set in an alternate 16th-century Venice. The detectives remind me of Rex Stout's Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe, in that legendary alchemist, physician, astrologer, and clairvoyant Maestro Nostradamus rarely leaves the Barbolano palace, sending his smart aleck apprentice Alfeo Zeno - a scion of impoverished Venetian nobility - to run his errands. Aiding their investigations are gondolier Giorgio and his large family, mute gentle giant Bruno, and Alfeo's courtesan lover, the multi-faceted Violetta, who lives next door.

As this second episode opens, Alfeo bumps into a good-looking childhood acquaintance, Danese Dolfin, whose recent prosperity arouses his suspicions. Then Maestro Nostradamus is hired by a patrician couple, Zuanbattista Sanudo and his wife Eva to return their missing daughter Grazia, who has eloped. The Maestro's clairvoyance shows where the couple will be. Lo and behold, Alfeo discovers that Grazia has run off with her mother's cavaliere servente - who turns out to be Danese Dolfin. The ardent young couple are married, the Maestro collects his fee, and the investigation appears to be over.

Then Nostradamus receives a most unusual summons from the Council of Ten, who want him to locate the spy who is 'doing great damage to the Republic'. Of course, they expect him to use supernatural methods to do so, but it's a touchy subject as magic is illegal in Venice. With a key insight from Alfeo, the Maestro suceeds in breaking the code for the spy's enciphered communications (discovered by Venetian intelligence). Charged with protecting the documents - and (though reluctantly) the investigators - is Alfeo's rival/nemesis Filiberto Vasco who would like nothing better than to arrest him for involvement in black magic.

Alfeo finds himself up against a demon and a jinx, experiencing clairvoyance and exercising his talent for pyromancy, while Vasco noses around, trying to catch him in wrongdoing - and succeeding. Our hero comes under suspicion of both murder ('an unexpected complication' especially since Alfeo's own sword was the murder weapon) and witchcraft, but the wily Maestro's clever scam saves his skin once more. This series is great entertainment from a fantasy master.

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