By Martha Wells

Avon, 1998, 359 pp (hardcover)

Reviewed by J. Ashley (7/98)

I did not want to like this book. I picked it up thinking it would be a historical mystery, and it turned out to be fantasy disguised as mystery--something that always smacks of the publisher trying to make a quick buck by leaping onto a hot trend. Grumpily, I started to read, wanting the story to be dull, thin, lifeless. . .

But I couldn't help it. In the opening pages the characters grabbed me by the throat didn't let go. Master thief Nicholas Valiarde (alias Donatien) and his accomplices, Madeline, an actress, Reynard, a former army officer, Crack, a prison escapee, and other thieves prepare to rob the house of an upper-class family, in whose cellars rests a cache of gold (either from a bank abroad or going to repay a loan abroad, I was never quite certain, but some kind of government finance thing). The plan--to steal the gold and plant it in the house of one Count Montesq, the man who had been instrumental in getting Nicholas's guardian tried, convicted, and executed for necromancy ten years earlier.

From there the plot becomes incredibly twisted. Nicholas finds that someone has broken into the cellar before him and stolen, not the gold, but something else that seems to be important enough to murder for. Then Nicholas discovers that a con-man is using a device invented by Nicholas's guardian to communicate with dead relatives of prominent families to discern the whereabouts of long-lost stores of wealth. Nicholas, incensed, wants the device back. But the con-man seems to have a very powerful backer, one who can use both mundane and magical means to try to kill Nicholas and his friends.

As Nicholas investigates the identity of the con-man's backer and tries to thwart the attempts on his own life, that backer's power increases, threatening to endanger the entire city of Vienne. Nicholas finds himself having to rescue his arch-enemy, Ronsarde of the Vienne police and banding with him to defeat this common threat.

Confused? It has to be read to be appreciated. The plot summary on the book jacket doesn't do it justice, and I can't either in short space. But Martha Wells weaves a tight story packed with danger, suspense, and mystery. Vienne is a city rather like Paris or London in the mid-nineteenth century, except that sorcerers exist and ghouls haunt the sewers. The police inspector, Ronsarde, is a brilliantly clever man and a master of disguise, whose friend and confidante is a doctor (hmmm, now where have I--?). Think Dupin, not Holmes.

This story twists and turns, keeping you just out of reach of the truth. If the twisty plot doesn't do it for you, the intriguing characters will. It's a juicy, dark, Poe-like mystery that made me jealously guard my reading time.

I highly recommend it for mystery lovers, as well as for those who aren't certain dark fantasy is their thing.

Other books by Martha Wells: City of Bones, The Element of Fire.

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