The Alchemist in the Shadows by Pierre Pevel (The Cardinal’s Blades #2)

Give me a world where dragons and magic are real but everything else is historically accurate with France of the mid-17th century, and I’ll be hooked on the premise alone. Combine that with fascinating characters and a story that really does keep you turning the pages well into the early hours of the morning, and you’ll leave me a happy man.

That’s exactly what Pierre Pevel does with his latest book, ‘The Alchemist in the Shadows’, the sequel to ‘The Cardinals Blades’ and a worthy successor at that.

The story continues on less than a month from the end of the first book, and doesn’t lose any of its pacing or excitement in the process. A new enemy is being unmasked, and La Fargue and his Blades are soon on the hunt for one of France’s worst enemies, not to mention their own.

Pevel has a real sense of what Paris and France would have been like back in the 17th century. It makes the story all the more real and believable, and allows the fantastical elements of dragons and magic to sit believably in the centre of the story. There is never too much of either; no fiery battles of magic bolts of lightning or anything of the sort, and the draconic aspects of the story sometimes even take a back seat to the simple human drama being played out in front of us.

It’s hard to fault Pevel for some of the more dreary scenes of description and exposition, as I am unsure as to whether they simply did not translate well from French into English. Tom Clegg, the translator, is very good, and there are very few moments where I am left wondering whether something could have been written or translated better. I think that’s a good mark for a book translated into English.

The characters and the story are the real highlights of this book. Each of the characters is often left to their own devices, carrying the story along on their shoulders while another character is left out of the action for a while. It makes for a really interesting read, as you are continually left with someone who is not only intricately involved in the story, but intricately written and fleshed out as a human being, or not, as the case may be.

Villains are part of the parcel in this book, and you really get a good feel for them. They’re the bad guys, and you can tell the bad guys from the good guys, and I sort of like that. I’m not adverse to bad guys in disguise, but when I know who to get behind and who to hate, it lets me get into the story a bit more. Pevel lets me do that by giving the bad guys character flaws and traits that allow me to identify their true allegiances, but not dislike reading them. The same goes for the good guys; no one is perfect, each have their own flaws and traits which make them individual and unique, and it is how they work together despite what they are hiding from one another that makes the scenes where they are together all the more interesting.

By the end of the book – which I’ll warn you ends on a mighty cliff-hanger, something I haven’t had to deal with in a while but didn’t leave me upset – you want more (and not just because of the cliff-hanger). There are aspects of the story set up through the two books now that I want to see resolved, or at least continued and fleshed out further. I want to see what happens to my favourite characters, who will survive and what happens to those who continually escape the clutches of the Cardinal and his Blades.

Let not the fact it is translated from French into English stop you, as I honestly could hardly tell most of the time. And let not the fact there are dragons in an otherwise historically accurate mid-17th century France put you off either; it’s done so well, you’d walk away believing Pevel knows something we don’t.

8/10 The characters and the story are the real highlights of this book.

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