The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells
Published July 21, 1998
Involving necromancy, heists, and revenge, The Death of the Necromancer is both an atmospheric, gaslight fantasy novel and a whodunnit. The book could be described as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and The Count of Monte Cristo and it’s one of the more successful works drawing inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon that I’ve ever read. While The Death of the Necromancer delivers a fast-paced adventure, I felt a little disengaged throughout. I don’t think this book will stay with me for long, but I’m still glad that I picked it up.
My main takeaway from The Death of the Necromancer is how versatile an author Martha Wells is. Like many of my fellow readers, I’m most familiar with Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, her series of science-fiction novellas (and one novel) about a snarky security unit that would rather be left alone to watch media. What a change it is to read instead about Nicholas Valiarde, embittered nobleman and ringleader of a band of thieves!
The Death of the Necromancer takes place in a fantasy world reminiscent of late 18th/early 19th century France, with its sewers, catacombs, greatcoats, and gaslit streets. Throw in some spells, ghouls, and a little vivisection and It’s an atmospheric setting that makes this book a perfect read for spooky season!
Nicholas Valiarde, whose alter ego is Ile-Rien’s greatest criminal, Donatien, is our protagonist. Some years before the novel takes place, Count Montesq successfully orchestrated the wrongful execution of Valiarde’s godfather on charges of necromancy. Consumed by thoughts of vengeance, Valiarde finances his quest for revenge by stealing from wealthy nobles, but when perilous occurrences and traces of necromantic power that haven’t been used for centuries begin to appear, Valiarde and his band of criminals must evade the police and get to the bottom of a tangled conspiracy before it costs them their lives.
Wells has stated on her blog that Nicholas Valiarde is a character who could have turned into his world’s Professor Moriarty, if not for the intervention of his godfather. In some ways Valiarde reminds me of Leigh Bardugo’s Kaz Brekker – they’ve both turned to a life of crime after losing someone close to them, both confide (occasionally) in the women they love, and both are closed off schemers who are out for revenge – yet I always felt at arms length from Valiarde. A little in awe, perhaps, but his single-mindedness and unavailability make Valiarde a difficult character to perceive.
I was also never fully invested in the romance between Valiarde and Madeline, a pragmatic actress/grifter. That might be because the characters don’t actually spend a lot of time in each other’s company over the course of the book, but I think the more likely reason is that they were both more interesting to read about and displayed more of their characterization in dialogue with other people. I liked Valiarde best in his scenes with Arisilde, a capable sorcerer with a crippling opium addiction, and Madeline comes to life with Doctor Halle and with a member of her family.
Even though I was underwhelmed by/never understood the central romance and despite I having trouble connecting to Valiarde, the wonderful secondary characters in this book make up for these shortcomings. I would happily read a spin-off about any one of these characters! From Wildesque Captain Reynard (a gay character in a fantasy book in 1998!), who has an unearned reputation of being a flighty dandy but is actually a loyal friend and former soldier, to well-meaning, but drug-addled, sorcerer Arisilde, who manages to embody both strength and weakness, to Holmesian Inspector Ronsarde, who proves a worthy opponent for Valiarde’s wits, and Ronsarde’s faithful assistant Doctor Halle.
Technically this is Book #2 in the Ile-Rien series, but it’s set 100 years after the first book in the series, The Element of Fire, and features an entirely new cast of characters. I picked up The Death of the Necromancer without reading the first book and found it perfectly capable of standing alone. I suspect I missed a tiny bit of a worldbuilding that would have served to put this book in context, but the impact is minimal.
I’m still in a bit of a pandemic reading lull and while The Death of the Necromancer may not have cured my slump, it is something I kept reaching for, even when the siren song of social media called. It’s short, exciting, and comes to a satisfying and clever conclusion worthy of Sherlock Holmes.
I don’t know that any of Martha Wells’ past works will surpass the Murderbot Diaries for me, but I really enjoyed the opportunity to read one of her fantasy novels and I look forward to diving into the Raksura Series at some point in the future.