The Alchemist in the Shadows is the follow-up to last year's successful swashbuckler, The Cardinal's Blades. Picking up mere weeks after the first book left off, Alchemist plunges headlong back into the world of flashing blades, courtly intrigues, dodgy liaisons and dark magic.
In Pevel's take on 17th century Paris, only the complex manipulations of Cardinal Richelieu have prevented France from being overwhelmed by its many foes. France has enemies without (its Protestant neighbours), within (scheming nobles - including the queen's mother) and supernatural (the Black Claw - draconic cultists with an apocalyptic vision for Europe). In the first book, Richelieu was forced to recall Captain la Fargue and his "blades", a group of talented (if unconventional) soldiers. Now, in the second, the Captain and his friends are up to their collective necks in danger.
Paraphrasing my review of The Cardinal's Blades - the plot is incidental. Convoluted, complex, surprisingly rewarding... but still incidental. Mr Pevel clearly adores Dumas, and his gifted transformation of Dumas' work into the fantasy genre is wonderful to read.
This is a very, very stylish book. Either the reader is willing to commit to the joyous, flamboyant, no-holds-barred swashbuckling lunacy of the series, or the adventure is wasted.
If anything, The Alchemist in the Shadows is a slightly more mature offering than The Cardinal's Blades. If the first book was an unrepentant homage to Dumas' creations, in The Alchemist in the Shadows, the reader is introduced to more of Pevel's own talent. A bit more background is revealed - a few more knightly and religious orders come to the front as the world is fleshed out. Even more importantly, we learn more about the backgrounds and personalities of the characters, major and minor. The Blades are all very likeable folk, and, with this book, they also become slightly more differentiated. This is no bad thing - Pevel proves that he's not only able to channel Dumas, but also that he can create something quite impressive with his own voice as well.
Mr Pevel is creating a stunning series that mixes plot and style, sword and sorcery, fine dining and fiery dragons. He's clearly got a knack for the convoluted intrigue of the period, but resists the urge to let indulgent detail stand in the way of telling a great story. The Alchemist in the Shadows is the sort of crazily-fun, laugh-out-loud adventure that makes you want to fence with your own shadow, and practice witty repartee in front of the mirror. Speaking a reader, the more of these books that exist, the happier I am.
[Behind in the series? You may want to check out our review of Pierre Pevel's The Cardinal's Blades.]