(2010) Pierre Pevel, Gollancz, £12.99, pbk, 328pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08441-4
What do I know about anything anyway? The Alchemist in the Shadows is the sequel to The Cardinal’s Blades, a novel I was less than complimentary about when I reviewed it for Interzone, before it walked off with the David Gemmell memorial award, that is. Why was I less than complimentary? Well, we are clearly in a world of dragons and swordsmen, not too unfamiliar territory there as far as it goes, but this is a mashed-up world of Alexander Dumas and Anne McCaffrey, and I felt there was not enough dragons, not enough fantasy, there was too much buckling of the swashes and a heck of a lot of description: lots of description about clothing, and how the character’s held themselves, and far too much info about Parisian architecture. We even had a map of the city! There were also a couple of stings in the tail, which came out of left-field. 'Cheats,' I thought to set up some cliff-hangers for the sequel, and here it is, book two. And it is a slightly different beast, given that the first book was about the re-forming of the discredited and disbanded Blades, who then went off on a mission, and while there were doing that there were some sub-plots bubbling nicely in the background.
If you do not know the world that Pevel has created then you really should start with The Cardinal’s Blades, but simply put we are in the 17th century and dragons exist, and there are a lot of them, from simple wyverns who are little more than flying horses, to grand, powerful, all-controlling dragons who can perform magic, and there is a whole range of dragons in between these two extremes, even half breeds. Yes, humans and dragons have mated –somehow! Cardinal Richelieu has a heavy burden on his shoulders trying to preserve France from its many enemies, some of which are neighbours with eyes on its territory, others are closer to home with schemes within schemes going on in the French court, and some involving major members of the Royal Family itself, and then there is the sinister cult of the Black Claw, the most dangerous threat of all, no wonder he needed to reform the Blades. Here, in book two, an Italian spy, the secret agent known as LaDonna has discovered that some of those dastardly dragons have their eyes on the French throne and tries to barter a deal with Cardinal Richelieu in return for a pardon, but the Blades are on the case and discover that one of the Black Claws best agents – the Alchemist – is also in town.
This is a big book in sweep and scale, although slow in places; here we go with all that description again, it does not really get going until near the end although we do have a sufficient supply of swashbuckling and skirmishes across roofs and carriage chases, and then it stops, cue for book three. What prevents it working as well as the first book is the splitting up of the Blades themselves and sending them off on separate missions, so the camaraderie and the fun disappears from the book, and some of the 'cheaty' reveals at the end of The Cardinal’s Blades hardly feature in book two at all, or are revealed all too quickly and then forgotten about, which makes them feel like a double-cheat. Why even bother including them in the first place? All seven of the Blades themselves are good as characters, with nice interplay between them and they gel well as a team, but LaDonna could have been an entertaining, major character, or thorn in their side, comes and disappears all too quickly. Having said that, Pevel is very good at keeping all his plates spinning even if we do not know whether they are going to fall and stay intact or get smashed, but he is in charge and we are just along for the bumpy ride. There are plots and sub-plots and intrigue and more back story for some of the major characters, and snappy dialogue and nifty swordplay. What more do you want? To sum up, if you read the first book you will want to read this one, but might be annoyed by the sudden shock ending. Roll on book three.
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