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Book Review: The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells

Genre: Steampunk, Fantasy
ISBN: 0380788144
ISBN-13: 9780380788149
Format: Mass Market Paperback, 544pp
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (Eos)
Pub. Date: July 1999

Nicholas Valiarde is a young man bent on revenge. His adoptive father was executed for the horrendous crime of necromancy through the machinations of a crime lord in the Il-Rien city of Vienne. Since that time Valiarde, under the pseudonym Donatien, has been subverting the crime underworld to his own ends to take revenge on his father’s murderer. But Valiarde is forced to turn away from thoughts of revenge when bodies begin to turn up and they appear to have been used for necromantic magic. Further incensed by the fact that Nicholas’ foster father’s inventions seem to have been used to assist the evil necromancer and his cronies, Nicholas uses his wealth and influence to root out the evil sorcerer.

Set in a lush and vivid Victorian fantasy world, Martha Wells’ novel, The Death of the Necromancer is a 1998 Nebula Nominee and the quintessential steampunk novel. Although /I have never liked the title of this subgenre, Wells’ novel does fit it. Vienne is very Victorian in setting, with carriages, underground trains, guns and other such items of that strange age, but with sorcery, the realm of faerie and strange doings mixed in. In a lot of ways, Vienne reminds me of London, with close knit streets, sharp divisions between upper and lower classes, and a criminal underworld unsurpassed in its evil.

Nicholas is a compelling character. Except for a few side forays into events surrounding his female companion Madeline, the story is told entirely from his point of view. Nicholas has also surrounded himself with an oddball cast of characters, from the actress who rejects her magical heritage, to the safecracker, to the not-so-disreputable former cavalryman. Add in some interesting enemies, including a spiritualist and a detective/doctor duo reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and you get some interesting characterization.

Wells style of writing will seem a little odd. Although her prose is full of action, it is also wordy and has lots of commas and conjunctions, creating long sentences that slow the pace of the tale down considerably. Add in exquisite descriptions of the myriad settings and you get a slow-moving novel. But the descriptions are carefully written and not overdone, so while the tale has a slow cadence leading up to the climatic flourish, The Death of the Necromancer is not a tale that will bog the reader down. And yet, for all the description and wordiness of the tale, the action never lets up.

Nicholas and company move from one problem to the next, and Wells weaves several plots together, sometimes bringing in new information from unlikely sources, and creating events the reader would not have expected. For instance, in a mundane piece of foreshadowing, Nicholas’ birth family is mentioned. In the course of a normal novel, this would be an interesting fact, but only essential to the plot if it where a case of pig farmer turning king. Not so in this story. Wells then makes Nicholas’ family background a significant turning point much later in the book, a thing which leaves his life hanging in the balance.

Where the novel fails is in partly in Wells writing style, and partly in the rather unexceptional ending to both of Nicholas’ problems. Wells writes in such a way that I found myself easily distracted from her book even though I wanted to keep reading to find out what was to happen next. At times, my eyes would pass over a section of the novel, and I wouldn’t be able to remember what I just read. Not because nothing was happening, but because the way Wells writes requires more attention than the average mindless story. I found the ending to both of Nicholas’ problems to be rather anticlimactic. The final confrontation with the necromancer by Nicholas and Madeline didn’t really seem like much of a triumph and Nicholas final confrontation with his nemesis and father’s killer is was rather ho-hum to my mind. Others will likely disagree.

Even if I didn’t enjoy the ending overmuch, I did enjoy the ride. The Death of the Necromancer has so many plot twistings and turnings, and such interesting characters; it is easy to see why this novel made it on the Nebula ballot. I do recommend this novel for all readers who enjoyed Jonathan Barnes The Somnambulist or Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. Like those books, The Death of the Necromancer will appeal to those folks who like the blending of magic and technology that is so much a part of the steampunk subgenre.

I recommend it as a book that is out of the ordinary and unusually creative. If you are looking for something outside the traditional tropes of fantasy, Martha Wells The Death of the Necromancer is a good place to start.