The Alchemist in the Shadows is the second book in The Cardinal’s Blades trilogy by French author Pierre Pével. We return to Pével’s vibrant 17th century Paris where magic, though rare, certainly exists, and the presence of dragons in one form or another is considered commonplace. Originally written in Pével’s native French, the English edition of The Alchemist in the Shadows is once again translated by Tom Clegg, the man responsible for its predecessor The Cardinal’s Blades.
Chronologically, the events of The Alchemist in the Shadows take place soon after those of the previous book. The Blades may have foiled the Black Claw’s original plan but the insidious sect has many more tricks up its collective sleeve. A beautiful and notorious Italian spy known as La Donna contacts Captain la Fargue offering valuable information in exchange for amnesty and Cardinal Richelieu’s protection. The Cardinal is not known for his leniency, but La Donna’s knowledge may be of such vital importance to the security of France that he has no choice. The Blades must be called upon once again to defend their country, and this time their adversary is none other than the elusive and deadly, the almost legendary, Black Claw operative: the Alchemist in the Shadows.
An engaging setting
While The Cardinal’s Blades introduced us to Pével’s intriguing take on 1633 Paris, in The Alchemist in the Shadows he has taken his world building to the next level. We learn more about the governance and society of historical France as well as the religious bodies and secret organizations that operate behind the scenes. There is also much more direct involvement by various types of dragons than in the previous novel and although there are so many featuring in the plot, all appear completely at home in Pével’s otherwise historically accurate Paris. From the little dragonets kept as pets and spies to the crude mercenary drakes, all not only add to the ambiance of the novel but also play important roles. Thus, The Alchemist in the Shadows carefully avoids the common alternative history trap of feeling too much like a history lesson with a fantasy element or two tacked on as an afterthought.
The Blades are back and this time around we finally start seeing some real character development. While The Cardinal’s Blades hinted that there was more to each of Pével’s characters than met the eye, The Alchemist in the Shadows has them evolve from a somewhat clichéd archetypes into fully realized individuals. The backgrounds of certain characters are explored, making them more relatable and often revealing surprising revelations about their pasts. Additionally, other familiar faces from The Cardinal’s Blades return to gain further prominence in this novel. For example, fans of the former spy Arnaud de Laincourt will be well pleased by his role. We are also introduced to fascinating new secondary characters with their own well defined and distinctive personalities. While the usually unscrupulous lady spy La Donna may reveal a soft spot for her mentor and pets, Leprat makes a friend behind enemy lines who may or may not turn out to be a decent sort. The main antagonist, The Alchemist, remains a mysterious, foreboding presence for most of the book, waiting for the optimum moment to unleash the full extent of his horrifying power. Personally, I found this made him a much more threatening character than the comparatively transparent Countess from The Cardinal’s Blades.
This series is defined by action, and in many cases throughout the novel, actions speak louder than words when it comes to characterization. We learn who among the characters will spare a surrendered foe and who will simply slit their throat. That’s not to say there’s anything lacking in the dialogue, however. In fact, the same characteristic flair and sharp wit that permeated the first book is equally, if not more, present in this one.
The Alchemist in the Shadows hurtles along at an even faster pace than The Cardinal’s Blades while embodying a heightened sense of drama and urgency. It achieves this while also containing more of the swashbuckling action and flamboyant play-by-play rapier duels that made the original so much fun. Once again, the story leaps between many different viewpoints with each of the Blades and other characters fulfilling their own separate roles and missions. These simultaneous narratives, along with the aforementioned lightning pace, do not make for a relaxing read as you will need your wits about you to keep up with the story. They do, however, make for an exciting one that will keep your pulse racing.
Many questions, few answers
Once again, Pével ends his story on a cliffhanger, one that is perhaps even more dramatic than that which concluded The Cardinal’s Blades. Furthermore, the revelation from the previous book is referred to briefly although its exact meaning and possible consequences remain elusive. We do learn a little about La Fargue’s secret although it serves mainly as a teaser to build intrigue for what I expect will be a big part of the third book, The Dragon Arcana (to be released in November 2011 in the UK).
The last few aspects of the book I should probably mention are mainly technical. Tom Clegg’s translation once again seems quite decent, providing a flowing English translation while maintaining the decidedly French feel of the book. In addition, the map of Paris provided in the front of the novel is less detailed but much more user friendly than that in The Cardinal’s Blades.
Why should you read this book?
All in all, The Alchemist in the Shadows surpasses its predecessor in many ways and if you enjoyed The Cardinal’s Blades you would be well advised to give this book a try. The cliffhangers and teasers may provide a challenge for the impatient, who may prefer to wait until the release of The Dragon Arcana before consuming these relatively short (around 350 page), yet extremely enjoyable, installments one after the other. The series is a must for those who enjoy their fantasy with a sharp wit and a break neck pace. This engrossing sequel is definitely hard to resist with its combination of action, dark magic, intrigue, a touch of humor and bloodshed all set in the decadent splendor of 17th century Paris.