The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells

The Death of the Necromancer
Recommended for: fans of supernatural/time-period mystery
Read from June 07 to 08, 2012
★  ★  ★  ★   1/2

Delightful. The Lies of Locke Lamora co-ops The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

The book blurb doesn’t have it quite right: Nicholas Valiarde is a passionate, embittered nobleman with an enigmatic past. Consumed by thoughts of vengeance, he is consoled only by thoughts of the beautiful, dangerous Madeline. He is also the greatest thief in all of Ile-Rien…”

No, no, no. Nicholas Valiarde is a classic comic-book dark hero. He has a secret persona; to the respectable world he is the adopted son of a noble hung for necromancy (naturally, he was framed), but in the underworld, he is Donatien, master thief. Like all dark heroes, he has a mission of vengeance–his is against the unscrupulous Count Montesq, the man who framed his father. He’s a bit obsessive about his goal and at one point, pauses to weigh public interest against his quest for retribution. He is assisted in his pursuit by a team with dark pasts: Reynard, a disgraced soldier; Crack, accused murderer and man of few words; Cusard, elderly master thief; Arisilde, sorcerer with an addiction problem; and Madeline, a stage actress (I kind of suspect Wells of making a point here–either Madeline was slumming or she’s implying something about acting).

As Viliarde is robbing a house as part of an elaborate plan to orchestrate Montesq’s downfall–because a simple murder is too easy–he and his crew discover someone has been at the scene before them and left a ghoul. Later that night, an ominous golem appears at his estate, sent by a spiritualist of suspicious origins. In an effort to learn more, the crew infiltrates an estate to attend a seance led by the spiritualist. Adventures continue, but since that’s only the first sixty pages, I hate to add any more at the risk of spoilers. Suffice to say that it’s a great deal like Robert Downey Jr.‘s version of Sherlock Holmes with as much action as introspection, and a fondness for disguises.

The world and culture sounds a great deal like 19th century London, so it is easy to immerse in the story. There are coaches, lanterns, tenements and opium addictions. There are references to people educated at the sorcerer’s college in London Lodun, and Persian Parscian rugs. The various magic systems are not entirely explained–sorcerers, witches, and necromancers–and references are made to the Fay and the Unseelie Court. Since necromancy is the most pertinent of the magic systems, it is explained well enough, and we get tantalizing glimpses of the rest. Characters are done well, and I give Wells a note of applause for having an alternate-sexuality supporting character without making it an issue, and for having a lead female with appropriate pluck and cleverness, and the ability to convincingly cross-dress. Evilness was nicely divided between the human and the supernatural, and provided plenty of tense moments, particularly in (of course) the sewers.

While the plot is brisk and the tone is serious, Wells seems willing to poke a little fun at her revenge-obsessed hero. I chuckled a few times at her sly humor:

Arisilde was on his hands and knees…”let’s see where this goes. I love secret tunnels, don’t you?”
“My back’s bad,” Cusard said quickly.
Lamane immediately asserted that his back was bad, too.

“He (Nicholas) should be grateful to them for destroying the great Inspector Ronsarde, something that he had never been able to do…. He wasn’t grateful, he was homicidal. It wasn’t enough that they endanger his friends and servants, they had to attack his most valued enemy as well.”

Dialogue is pleasantly snappy at times, with Reynard trading barbed witticisms, and Madeline sassing an elderly lady, but without characters becoming so enamored of their wit that they stop to trade one-liners with Evil. I enjoyed Wells writing style and found it sophisticated enough to maintain engagement, but not so ponderous that I lost interest. One of the underlying plot points is an interesting extrapolation of the classic detective-criminal meeting, and I was impressed that the writing made it seem possible.

Small things prevented this from five stars, including a couple of small moments that felt a bit deus ex machina later in the story. Still, it’s one that I’d consider adding to the library, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend. Note: nominated for a Nebula.

“Could you be any less forthcoming? Nicholas wanted to ask, but he reminded himself that he was avoiding a quarrel.”

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16 Responses to The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells

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  5. neotiamat says:

    Well, after City of Bones I went to look for more Martha Wells, and I enjoyed this book even more. It’s not quite as outre’ as City of Bones, but it’s got enough world-building to be interesting (even if the setting isn’t as unique you get a definite sense that Wells has thought through carefully how her world functions), the characters are a lot of fun, and the plot is snappy and engaging.

    I found myself mentally comparing it with the Lies of Locke Lamora as well, actually, in that Locke and Nicholas are broadly similar characters. But I think there’s a vital tonal difference. The Gentlemen Bastards series has a bit of comic book feel to it, characters who are dramatically larger than life. They think bigger, talk faster, and fight better than you’d really expect people to do. It doesn’t detract from the book, but they’re sort of superheroes, in a sense.

    Death of the Necromancer’s characters come across as more believable. They’re still fun and dramatic, but I rather liked the contrast between our merely mortal protagonists and the supernatural horrors. Nicholas doesn’t stab the undead monster while making a quip, he almost gets his throat torn out too quickly to blink.

    The result, I feel, was a somewhat more intellectual book, for all the action-y components (the prison scene was, I think, a very good example of this. You can fight people, but monsters you run away from, and try to out-think).

    I’ll agree with you on the slightly deus-ex-machina-ish elements, though the only one that really bothered me was the bit with Montesq at the veeeeeery end. Still, even with that I loved this book. Now I just need to decide which Wells book to read next… decisions, decisions…

    • thebookgator says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I do think this one is a lot of fun, and you are right–despite statements in my opening paragraph–a good portion why it is so satisfying for me is that it does have a more intellectual and realistic approach. Thus the hazards of trying to write ‘hook’ paragraphs, sigh, because it is actually not very comic-book at all. It holds up very well to re-read because of it–I think I’ve read it three times.

      I will look forward to hearing which Wells book you go with next… you’ve hit my favorites, I believe. I did like The Cloud Roads a great deal, which is a very unusual high fantasy, but I’m just not enjoying the conventional fantasy genre as much these days. I am enjoying Kameron Hurley’s gritty Bel Dame series.

      • neotiamat says:

        I think I’ll grab something light and fluffy (maybe John Moore? Or I’ve still got the last Master Li book…) for a palate cleanser, and then I’m inclined to tackle the Cloud Roads (also, I sympathize so very, very much on being bored with conventional fantasy or UF these days… I feel like I can recite the plot of some books that I’ve never even read, which isn’t a good sign).

      • thebookgator says:

        Hm, I’m unfamiliar with John Moore. Do you review anywhere? I just got the very last Master Li book as well. I did enjoy Cloud Roads a great deal, and had my library had the next, I probably would have keep reading. I had to wait an order the second in the series though, so I ended up distracted with other books.

  6. neotiamat says:

    Oh, and forgot to mention — but acting was pretty much a disreputable profession until the early 20th century (and going back a very long time, certainly back to Shakespeare). You went up on stage and *pretended to be other people,* which clearly meant you’re not a trustworthy sort. They were also people who were allowed to move freely between cultural and social barriers, since they were fundamentally lower-class people who were nevertheless permitted to hobnob with the upper classes.

    Actresses in particular were heavily implied to be prostitutes in the Victorian era, or at least close cousins to them. If you were a highly aristocratic sort, you wouldn’t visit your common streetwalker, no, you got an actress as your mistress, and paid her in the form of presents of jewelry or expensive clothing which (it was widely understood but not stated) she would then sell for actual money.

    Off the top of my head, Prince Alexander von Battenberg (first monarch of independent Bulgaria) actually married an actress later in his life, and Tsar Nicholas II’s favorite mistress (wife in all but name till he got married) was a star ballerina, and going back a bit, Nell Gwyn, the most famous mistress of Charles II of England was also one of the best actresses of the day.

    Madeline isn’t precisely like that, but a young nobleman like Nicholas having an actress mistress, and an actress being involved in sketchy dealings, was a nice touch of historical realism.

    • thebookgator says:

      Ah, that makes sense! It fits Well’s background as well. I agree, it is a nice touch of historical realism. I kept thinking there was some historical political parallel that I wasn’t recognizing as well.

      • neotiamat says:

        There are a lot of nice little touches scattered throughout the book that show that Wells really does know her stuff (I found myself reminded of Hambly’s historical works, myself). In the first few pages it’s mentioned, for instance, how the University of Lodun only opened up to women about a decade ago. It’s never brought up again, but it’s this neat little touch which says so much about the fact that this is a world that *has* history and politics and progress. The scenes with the toshers (sewermen) could’ve come straight out of Henry Mayhew’s interviews with the London poor.

  7. neotiamat says:

    I do not review anywhere, no. You might say my comments on your blog are my first halting forays into that world.

    John Moore writes these sort of Comic Fantasy / Fractured Faerie Tale stories, rather reminiscent of Robert Asprin, if that’s a more familiar name. The one I read (Bad Prince Charlie) had a great many Hamlet elements, a search for Weapons of Magical Destruction, and a kingdom that was *trying* to get invaded.

    World-shaking literature, it isn’t, but it was a quick, silly, fun story.

    • thebookgator says:

      Well, I must say that I always find your comments thought-provoking, and I’m glad our tastes align enough that you comment here.
      I have indeed read a lot of Asprin; as a young teen, I found his books interesting and funny. I often think of those sorts of books as palate-cleansers, or mood-aligners. Nothing wrong with that!

      • neotiamat says:

        *blushes* Well, I am flattered! Thank you!

        Your posts actually make me think a bit more deeply about the books I read. By and large, I’m not a very introspective reader — reading is my “Neo turns off brain” time. So, glad it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.

        (Also, I decided to dig up Robert Asprin, except you can’t find a Phule’s Company ebook online for love or money! Peculiar, that.)

  8. thebookgator says:

    Hm, interesting about Phule and ereaders. I guess I’ll hang on to my two paperback editions a while longer! Phule always amused me.

  9. Pingback: Magistrates of Hell by Barbara Hambly | book reviews forevermore

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