Dave Duncan

Dave Duncan


Originally from Scotland, Dave Duncan has lived all his adult life in Western Canada, having enjoyed a long career as a petroleum geologist before taking up writing. Since discovering that imaginary worlds are more satisfying than the real one, he has published more than thirty novels, mostly in the fantasy genre, but also young adult, science fiction, and historical. Dave now lives in Victoria, BC.

Dave Duncan

Dave Duncan



Why did I write the Alchemist’s Apprentice?

Because it wasn’t there, as George Mallory did not say about Mount Everest.

Fantasy, of course, is the mother lode, fiction with the gloves off, the root from which all other genres sprout. All the greatest storytellers have used it—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens. Every other genre can be alloyed with fantasy, so we get historical fantasy, “magic realism” upmarket fantasy, romantic fantasy, scientific fantasy (SF), and Louis L’Amour wrote at least one fantasy western.

The strangest mix of all, though, has to be detective-story fantasy. The term seems oxymoronic—a whodunit must be based on hard, if obscure, facts, which should logically identify one person as the only possible villain. How can such a plot stand up if it has supernatural termites gnawing at its foundations, if the murderer can teleport or the sleuth has the Sight? The answer, as the late Randall Garrett demonstrated so convincingly in his Lord Darcy stories, is that the magic must be very carefully defined and restricted.

But that is true of the magic in all fantasy. I had written epic fantasy and historical fantasy, but I had never tried a whodunit fantasy. So that’s why: because it wasn’t there—yet. It was a challenge to myself, just to see if I could.

So why Venice? Janet and I first visited Italy in 1996. We had one day in Venice. Of course it stole our hearts, as it has stolen every visitor’s heart in the last eight hundred years. In 2001 we went back with a wonderful Smithsonian Institute tour and spent a week there, soaking up the art and the history. I became a Venice geek. I caught an infection, the urge to set a story there, and it began to incubate as soon as I got home. This was pure hubris. I cannot speak or read Italian, let alone Veneziano, the language of the historical Venetian state. Fortunately Venice still has many of its state records dating back to the Middle Ages, so enough books have been written about the city to fill the lagoon. I own more than thirty now and have read many more.

Venice was not a democracy as we understand the word, but it kept its independence for eleven hundred years, the longest-surviving republic in world history. Hostile armies could not cross the lagoon and navies could not sail in it when the Venetians removed the channel markers, as they did in time of war.

A city of no more than 200,000 people, it won and lost an empire not once but three times, then spent the last three centuries of its existence sinking into a soporific decadence of sex, tourism, and gambling, the Las Vegas of Europe. My story is set around 1595, when the great days were over and it had entered into its long decline, but it was not until 1797, two centuries later, that a French army under Napoleon Bonaparte arrived on the shore with artillery that could reach across the lagoon to bombard the city. Rather than see Venice destroyed, the Great Council voted itself out of existence and Lodovico Manin, the only mainlander ever elected doge, took off the corno crown as a sign of his abdication.

Venice had a bizarre and complex system of government, far stranger than anything I have ever invented (and I have designed more worlds than God). It was by far the most innovative city in Europe, and has given the English language several words, including arsenal, gazette, gondola, lagoon, lido, sequin, and ghetto. (Although it treated its Jews much better than most cities did.) It never burned a heretic. It invented legal aid, the production line, table forks, and newspapers. It had street lights on the canals by 1128 and a department of health by 1335; it lured all the best doctors in Italy to come and live there.

Which brings us to Phillip de Nostradame. I don’t know if he ever visited Venice, but he likely did, because he published almanacs in Italy, and Venice was the publishing capital of Europe. He claimed to be a nephew of the great Michel de Nostradame. Michel’s children denied this, but who knows now who was lying four hundred years ago?

So there was the challenge: could I write a fantasy whodunit, set in Venice, starring the astrologer-alchemist-magician-detective, Filippo Nostradamus? By May of 2004, I was ready to start work.

I came, I saw, I concocted. In September I turned in the result to Janet, always my first reader. She thought it worked; my ever-patient group of reader friends said it did. So did Ace, with enough faith in its judgment that it ordered a couple of sequels as well. I hope you will agree with all these good people’s opinion.

My thanks, of course, to the example set by Randall Garrett, and also to the late Rex Stout—if you know his work, you’ll understand why I mention him.

If you enjoy my book, please tell the world about it.


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