The Death of the Necromancer: Intricate steam-and-sorcery mystery

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Martha Wells The Death of the Necromancer Ile-RienThe Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells

Nicholas Valiarde is a man obsessed. Expertly assisted by a coterie of talented yet honorable thieves, he’s all but completed his master plan of revenge against Count Montesq, a corrupt nobleman who orchestrated the execution of Nicholas’s foster father on the basis of a false charge of necromancy. Nicholas’s plan is interrupted, however, by the appearance of the mysterious Dr. Octave, a professed medium who may or may not be a fraud, but who is somehow connected with the strange, magical spheres on which the false charge against Nicholas’s foster father was based. And as Nicholas and his allies slowly unravel the dark cloak around Octave, their fingers touch the bones of an ancient and implacable evil lurking beneath the streets and sewers of their unsuspecting city …

The Death of the Necromancer is a rich, complex, stand-alone novel set in the gaslit city of Ile-Rien; and even though this reviewer is discovering it a decade after its publication, its earning of a Nebula Award nomination for Martha Wells is unsurprising. Ms. Wells has created a wonderful setting — complete with pistols, trains, vile-smelling sewers and catacombs, and numerous other Victorian touches — and populated it with realistic characters, who reveal much of themselves on the page and yet give the impression of unplumbed depths in their personalities. In particular, Madeline (a steel-spirited actress and Nicholas’s lover) and Arisilde (a powerful sorcerer fallen into opium addiction) are two of the most finely drawn characters I can recall in a fantasy novel. Ms. Wells’s writing competently and often vividly supports the weight of the novel’s Byzantine plot. (I only have three quibbles with her writing style: unusual punctuation; frequent perception/filtering tags such as “He saw that one of Spot’s paws was blue” instead of “One of Spot’s paws was blue”; and a sense of confusion as to exactly what was happening in certain action scenes, though perhaps that was an intentional reflection of the scenes occurring in darkness?)

The Death of the Necromancer is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and the strength of its characters and setting brings to mind other ornate, urban works (such as Kushner’s Swordspoint; Wolfe‘s Shadow of the Torturer; and Moorcock’s Gloriana). Highly recommended for enthusiasts of post-medieval fantasy and mystery.  Four bright gaslight sconces.


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ROB RHODES was graduated from The University of the South and The Tulane University School of Law and currently works as a government attorney. He has published several short stories and is a co-author of the essay “Sword and Sorcery Fiction,” published in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. In 2008, Rob was named a Finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Rob retired from FanLit in September 2010 after more than 3 years at FanLit. He still reviews books and conducts interviews for us occasionally. You can read his latest news at Rob’s blog.

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