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The Alchemist In The Shadows by Pierre Pevel

1/09/2011. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy The Alchemist In The Shadows in the USA - or Buy The Alchemist In The Shadows in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 357 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-08441-4.

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Whenever the public is asked to vote on an issue of art, literature or media, there is always a clash between the winners and the view of the critics. In the early years of the Booker Prize, it always seemed to baffle the reading public that the judges had picked such esoteric tomes as the winners. The difference was that the panel read with a critical eye and the majority of book buyers were more interested in a book that they could read on a beach. Being a best-seller and gaining critical acclaim often do not go hand in hand. Pierre Pevel’s first novel, ‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ won the Gemmell Award For Best Newcomer To The Fantasy Field. This, ‘The Alchemist In The Shadows’, was nominated and short-listed for the Gemmell Award For Best Fantasy Novel this year. As these awards are voted for by the reading public, they have appeal.

‘The Alchemist In The Shadows’ is a direct sequel of the first novel, being set only a month or so later. The Cardinal’s Blades are a group of superb swordsmen (and one woman) who are retained by Cardinal Richelieu for secretive and hazardous missions. The time is 1633, the place is France but this is an alternative Europe where dragons are extant. The Alchemist of the title is actually a very old dragon who usually takes human form in order to conduct his schemes. His ultimate aim is chaos in the courts of Europe so that he and his fellow dragons can take advantage of the mayhem and become the ultimate rulers of humankind. In the opening chapters, he barely escaped capture and has had to fade from sight. For a while, he fades from the sight of this novel, too.

The main thrust of the story begins when Blades are called in to escort a lady known as La Donna into the protective custody of the Cardinal. She claims to have information about a plot against the French throne but is very cautious about revealing the details, stalling as much as she can though her life seems genuinely in danger. The Blades work towards uncovering the nature of the plot but with the proviso that they must not interfere or tip off the aristocrats that the King Louis XIII has ordered to be arrested. The duchesse de Chevreuse and her elderly lover, the marquis de Châteauneuf, who is Keeper of the King’s Seals, are to detained on charges of treason immediately after the lavish ball the Duchesse planning to hold. Within her household is the Alchemist, though we would not have known this if the author had not given us the information.

For the reader wanting a fast-paced, action-packed novel without having to think about historical accuracy, this will have great appeal. (For the flaws in this area, see the review of ‘The Cardinal’s Blades, this month.) For anyone who likes dragons, despite the beautiful one on the cover by Jon Sullivan, there are not enough of them. To a certain extent, they are pushed to one side in favour of the action. A lot more could have been made of them, even though we are introduced to dracs. These appear to have been bred for their fighting skills but other than their orcish temperament, we learn little about them.

Although the plot contains plenty of deceptive twists and unexpected deceits, not all of which are totally clear, it does not afford the time to develop the characters as personalities in their own right. Some of the problems may be due to this being a translation from the original French by Tom Clegg and nuances in language may have been lost. Equally, it is just as likely that this is an author who prefers to write action at the expense of characterisation. This is the kind of book that will have a substantial following amongst those who want a quick read, but which will be dismissed by the critics.

Pauline Morgan

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This book has 106 votes in the sci-fi charts

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