The Death of the Necromancer, by Martha Wells

Published 1998, Nebula Award Nominee
Review by Tim

Jenn has mentioned elsewhere in these pages that her preference is for fantasy, while my taste runs more to science fiction. That's true, generally speaking, but only because I find most of the current crop of fantasy to be formulaic and dull, and it is very hard to sort the few worthwhile grains from the hills of chaff. When I first noticed The Death of the Necromancer in the bookstores, it looked to me like more of the same. When I discovered it had been nominated for a Nebula award1 for best novel, however, I took the trouble to read the first few paragraphs, and was intrigued enough to buy it in its hardcover edition.

The setting of the novel is the city of Vienne, in the enigmatically named country of Ile-Rien. Vienne bears a strong resemblance to 19th century Paris both culturally and technologically. There are trains drawn by steam locomotives, and firearms. Also there is magic, ranging from the simple practices of hedge-wizards and street mountebanks, to the powerful magics taught at the University at Lodun. This is an unusual venue for a fantasy novel, somewhat reminiscent of Randall Garrett's stories of Lord Darcy.

Our hero is an enigmatic gentleman named Nicholas Valiarde, who leads a double life as a shadowy underworld figure known only as Donatien. His aim is to avenge the wrongful execution of his mentor and benefactor, Edouard Viller, who was framed for the crime of necromancy by Count Montesq. He is assisted in this purpose by Madeline, a rising light of the Vienne stage, his friend Captain Reynard Morane, and his loyal henchmen and servants Crack and Cusard. Also, from time to time, he gains the assistance of a powerful, but tragically drug-ravaged wizard named Arisilde.

While pursuing his intricate scheme of vengeance against Montesq, Nicholas accidentally becomes entangled in the affairs of a true necromancer. He and his friends are soon fighting for their lives against the dire power of this homicidal madman. Nicholas is forced to make common cause with Donatien's most dangerous and respected adversary, Inspector Ronsarde, in an effort to counter the necromancer's ultimate plans, which aim at nothing less than the throne of Ile-Rien.

The plot is intricate and well constructed, the characters both credible and likeable. The dialogue is often mannered in that delightfully amusing way peculiar to 19th century novels, as in this fragment following a chance meeting with Montesq:

When Montesq had taken his leave and gone back to his table, Madeline said seriously, "Sometimes your self-control frightens me."

"Thank you," Nicholas said, lifting his glass to her, not that he thought she had meant it as a compliment.

"I thought you were as subtle as a ground adder myself," Reynard commented dryly. "What did I miss?"

"If I had been too obliging, he would have become suspicious." Nicholas swirled the contents of his wine glass. "He knows I hate him. He just doesn't realize to what extent I've acted on it."

"So he was testing you," Reynard said thoughtfully.

Madeline idly shredded a flower petal from the table decoration. "I wonder why."

Nicholas smiled, with a razor edge that was anything but gentle. "Perhaps he has an occupied conscience."

It may be that we will be revisited by Nicholas and Madeline again in some future novel. Ms Wells certainly left the door open for the possibility and, with any luck, I and others of like-mind will certainly be gratified to make their acquaintance once again.

April, 1999

1The Science Fiction Writers of America Awards, commonly known as the Nebulas, are awarded each year by the membership to honor the excellence of their peers in various writing categories. They are distinct from the Science Fiction Achievement Awards, also known as the Hugos (after Hugo Gernsback), which are the awards bestowed by readers of science fiction.