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The Alchemist’s Code by Dave Duncan

And now it is time to sit down for that second cup of my grandma’s tea (see The Alchemist’s Apprentice). There are times when I reach the end of a mystery book and the detective does the final “reveal” leaving the criminal a quivering wreck and I think, “Wow, that was really underwhelming!” I look back at the cardboard cut-out characters who were shuffled around the page to create the illusion of a puzzle and frankly, like Rhett, I don’t give a damn. Thank God for books like The Alchemist’s Code by Dave Duncan.

This is probably the most difficult of books to write — the second in what looks as though it may become an ongoing series. Let’s look over the author’s shoulder. He or she knows exactly what went into the first book and this was a success. So the first question is how much backstory to include in the second. You cannot assume that all the readers for the second volume will have read the first, but the more you repeat what happened in the first, the more you may bore the “old hands”. Duncan takes the bold route of assuming everything and plunging happily into the story. When some explanation is required, it is dropped unobtrusively into the text as we go along. This first step is encouraging.

He then produces an immediate statement of intent in the first major set-piece encounter between the Sanudos (the clients) and the two main characters Maestro Filippo Nostradamus (the detective) and Alfeo Zeno (the put-upon factotum). It is a delight to observe the dissection of the thought processes that go into impressing (or gulling) the clients.

Having settled into his rhythm, Duncan then sweeps us through a somewhat more violent and dangerous outing than the first volume. There is swordplay and a more positive supernatural element. We have the same tarot and use of a crystal ball, but there is a real jinx blocking progress in the investigation with an interesting confrontation. More importantly, the political framework of the story is much more powerful and, even though some of the history is distinctly of the cod variety, it contributes beautifully to the content for the problem and its resolution.

Back to the ending. Absolutely everything about this particular solution is meticulously set up and then explained. It is so completely a part of the milieu of Venice that it is obvious once it is pointed out to you. But it is one of the few solutions over my reading past that has evoked genuine admiration. The only other author who consistently produced a similar response is Anthony Price. The cleverness of the misdirection in some of the Dr. David Audley novels is unsurpassed. In this case, I immediately read the last few chapters again to enjoy it all over again.

Overall, this is far better than the first and can be read as a stand-alone. A positive joy in every respect. The next in the series is The Alchemist’s Pursuit. There’s a new series starting with Speak to the Devil and When the Saints, and a stand-alone called Pock’s World.

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