Alfeo Zeno is of noble blood, but ended up as the obedient and not incapable apprentice of a grouch named Nostradamus. That grouch also happens to be an extremely capable doctor, astrologist, academic, clairvoyant and demon-summoning-master guy.
When one of Nostradamus’ doom-predicting prophecies comes true, some suspect that Nostradamus had poisoned the old fart to make his prophesying power look legitimate. Well, sort of. Alfeo is sent on a quest to investigate the real murderer, a quest that takes him around town (1600/1700’s Venetian Republic) to talk to an inordinate amount of people, get thrown in jail, work with a guy who wants to throw him in jail, and get mobbed by louts. Not in that order. Fun, eh?
The Quills: 7/10
In Venice people are defined by their costumes. A tradesman does not dress like a shopkeeper or a courtesan like a lady. It mattered that I was stubbled, tangled, and rumpled but it mattered much more that I was dressed as an apprentice, not a nobleman.
-Dave Duncan, The Alchemist’s Apprentice
Told in first person POV by Alfeo, the writing is no-nonsense and solid rather than trying to be fancy. I would say it’s an adult category book because it doesn’t have so much of the young adult voice, but content-wise there’s nothing to prevent it from being YA. The Alchemist’s Apprentice is categorized as science fiction/fantasy but the fantasy part really plays a minimal role; it’s really a historical mystery.
For a mystery, it wasn’t as gripping as I thought it should have been. There were huge long passages of descriptions of the city and the government. Excellent world building. I could see the gondoliers rowing down the canal and smell the dust of books that lined Nostradamus’ shelves. That helped to really bring the world to life, but also hurt the pace; those passages were sometimes a little too much, and slowed some parts of the book to a crawl.
There wasn’t a real tone of urgency in the book, besides the very beginning and the very end. Although it seems like Nostradamus may be in trouble, the police go about things very slowly, or Alfeo goes about things too quickly so it doesn’t feel like there’s too much at stake. I mean, the man takes time out of his investigation to go court his lady friend. More than once! This was disappointing for me because I like my mysteries to be gripping, and to have high stakes. Otherwise, why bother spending all that effort to investigate?
The characters were fun and witty but there were far too many of them to get to know. At times, the book felt like a storm of names and titles. And the odd Italian word or two (the glossary is a must read!). Alfeo is well characterized, his lady is an enigma, and his master is cranky and crazily wise. The rest of the characters are just faces in a crowd.
The Roses: 5/10
It’s not a bad book. I enjoyed it. But I also had to put it down several times because it didn’t hold me. Late at night, it didn’t keep me up; it incited my yawns. I wasn’t compelled to race to the finish. I was barely compelled to pick the book up. I didn’t really care who ended up being the culprit. I barely even cared if Alfeo found the culprit because the characters themselves didn’t seem to care overly much.
The world was great. Some of the characters were great. The motive for the investigation was weak and honestly, knocking on a bunch of people’s doors, asking them the same questions and getting kicked out or getting the same responses is not super interesting to me. That feels too much like what real cops do. And real life is only interesting sometimes.
This is the first of a series, but I don’t think I will be reviewing the next books.
In summary, this book was built with good parts, but the whole was less than the sum of the parts.