1998’s The Death of the Necromancer was Martha Well’s third novel, following 1993’s The Element of Fire and 1995’s City of Bones. Like The Element of Fire, Necromancer is set in the city of Ile-Rien, a city that seems to be a bit like a gaslight era Paris, but which has the extra fun element of magic.
Whether he is being the aristocratic Nicholas Valiarde or the master thief Donatien, Valiarde is a man consumed with thoughts of vengeance. This aristocrat of questionable ancestry and a colourful past is determined to take revenge on Count Montesq, who orchestrated the conviction and execution of Valiarde’s beloved godfather Edouarde on trumped up charges of necromancy. Valiarde’s audacious campaign is carried on with great difficulty and danger. Not only is Montesq a man of no small cunning and considerable political power, but Ile-Rien is home to the master-detective Inspector Ronsarde and his faithful assistant Doctor Halle, both of whom would be happy to catch the elusive thief Donatien (that is, Valiarde). Fortunately, Valiarde isn’t alone in his quest. Each of his companions, from the talented actress Madeline to the opium-addicted but capable sorcerer Arisilde, brings their own valuable abilities to the struggle; still, Valiarde will have to step very carefully to avoid being caught by Ronsarde before Valiarde manages to punish Montesq.
Given all the careful planning and preparation that has gone into Valiarde’s final triumphant gambit, it seems rather unfair that that gambit is derailed in its earliest stages when a third (or perhaps fourth) party elects to break into the same mansion that Valiarde and company have targeted. Valiarde soon works out the identity of the new player in the game — one Doctor Octave—but what Octave is up to remains unclear. What is clear is that if Octave himself is not a necromancer, he is working with someone who is, someone who is all too aware of Valiarde’s inadvertent knowledge of necromantic activities and who is determined to silence Valiarde and company forever.
Valiarde’s new foe appears to have access to the work of the long-dead necromancer Macob, one of the great villains of Ile-Rien history. Valiarde’s operatic scheme for revenge is soon set aside. As important as punishing Montesq is to Valiarde, even the corrupt and powerful Montesq is not as great a threat to Valiarde and his friends and servants as the entity who is pulling Octave’s strings. Indeed, Ile-Rien itself could be at risk.
The evidence increasingly points to the player on the other side not being merely someone with access to Macob’s knowledge, but Macob himself — despite the trifling complication that Macob was arrested, tried, convicted, and executed for his despicable crimes two centuries earlier.…
I am just a little sad that this novel wasn’t The Count of Monte Cristo meets Oceans Eleven1 that the opening paragraphs appeared to promise, but the novel I actually got was pretty good in its own right. Wells does a nice job of managing a fairly large cast and at least five conflicting agendas. Her plot ramps up nicely from personal vendetta to existential threat (and it manages to do so in just 359 pages).
My one gripe would be that it wasn’t necessary to ruin quite so many of Valiarde’s finest coats. You’d think a setting as magic-rich as Ile-Rien would have come up with an anti-revenant-slime spray for clothing or at least something along those lines. Oh, and I don’t know why so many fantasy settings eschew utilitarian magic in favour of stuff like necromancy. Sure, animating the dead is flashy, but a dry-cleaning spell could be worth serious coin.
I also felt at least a little sorry for poor Holmesian Ronsarde, whose determination and intelligence would no doubt have resulted in the exposure and arrest of all the criminals … had it not been for the fact that he was not in fact the protagonist of the novel, but merely a supporting character. On the plus side, Ronsarde’s confederate Halle manages to escape the trap laid by actor Nigel Bruce, which is to be depicted as an imbecilic sidekick, there to make the detective look smarter by contrast.
While this book does nothing to mitigate my sadness at the frequency of aristocracies in speculative fiction, I will admit that aristocracies do have one tremendous advantage where books like this are concerned. They facilitate plots in which the secular authorities are thoroughly subverted by corrupt but well-placed villains, which in turn forces protagonists like Valiarde to rely on less conventional but more entertaining methods.
While the revenge plot that opens the books owes something to The Count of Monte Cristo, Valiarde as Donatien is cousin to characters like Alexander Mundy, Arsène Lupin2, and Simon Templar: charming rogues who use their illicit skills in the service of justice, or at least justice as they see it. Valiarde is playing a similar game but in a higher league and for greater stakes.
After writing The Element of Fire and The Death of the Necromancer, Wells revisited Ile-Rien for the Fall of Ile-Rien Trilogy, which comprises The Wizard Hunters, The Ships of the Air, and The Gate of Gods. She has also written a number of shorter works about Ile-Rien, a list of which can be found here.
Death of the Necromancer can be purchased from a number of sources at the other end of this link.