France, 1633. A secretive female agent, known as La Donna, is wanted for crimes across Europe. When she stumbles across a draconic conspiracy aimed at the French throne, she asks for a pardon from Cardinal Richelieu in return for the disclosure of her intelligence. Whilst Richelieu's agents and La Donna engage in a verbal battle of wills, the Cardinal's Blades are assigned to uncovering the extent and nature of the conspiracy before it can be set into motion, only to learn that the formidable Black Claw agent known as 'The Alchemist' is involved.
The opening novel in the Cardinal's Blades series was a fun, swashbuckling adventure which combined elements of Dumas with dragons to great effect. This second novel is a somewhat different beast. The first book seemed to establish a potential formula, with the Cardinal's Blades being made aware of a threat and moving to counter it, a formula which could generate quite a few novels before feeling tired. Interestingly, the second novel ups the ante and moves events onto a larger and more apocalyptic scale before ending on a cruel cliffhanger just as the plot starts to really get going. The result is a book which is, at least compared to its predecessor, somewhat disappointing for much of its length and then abruptly ends just as it catches fire.
Part of the problem is that the book lacks the clear structure of the first one. In the first novel the Blades were gradually re-recruited by Captain La Fargue, assembled and then unleashed against a formidable enemy. In this volume the Blades seem to be more at the whims of fate and luck than working effectively as a team (the book sees the Blades off on their own missions for much of its length, with a corresponding lack of the banter and camaraderie of the first novel). Some character arcs are continued from the first novel, although bafflingly the major cliffhanger of the first book is only briefly referred to and then dismissed, which makes me wonder why it was included in the first place. Held back until later, it would have been more powerful and effective. Characterisation is also uneven, with Leprat, Laincourt and Saint-Lucq being satisfyingly developed whilst Marciac simply doesn't have much to do. The character of La Donna is introduced, becomes fascinating, and then vacates the storyline with little forewarning, with even her much-referred-to verbal fencing skills being reported rather than shown directly, which is a disappointment.
This lack of depth is frustrating, given the evident skill Pevel has in other areas. 17th Century Paris is again vividly described and Pevel has some skill depicting political intrigue, whilst there are more swashbuckling swordfights, rooftop chases (amusingly slightly subverted here) and dastardly carriage escapes by moonlight, all mightily enjoyable, but generally they arrive fairly late in the day after many pages of fairly workmanlike plotting. The Alchemist in the Shadows simply lacks the je'nai sais quoi that made the first volume so much fun, only showing signs of its predecessor's verve and energy towards the (well-realised) conclusion and the cruel cliffhanger.
The Alchemist in the Shadows (***) will be released on 16 September 2010 in the UK.