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The Alchemist’s Door

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The Alchemist’s Door by Lisa Goldstein. John Novak commented on this back on August 11 (you’ll have to scroll down, as his permalinks are busted. Luckily, he hasn’t updated in weeks…), and I really don’t disagree with his comments.

Goldstein is one of those excellent writers who inexplicably seem to cruise along just under the radar. She’s written some brilliant stuff (Tourists is probably her best, and The Red Magician is also excellent), and generally draws critical praise, but somehow she just fails to explode into huge sales (at least not obviously so– she must sell reasonably well, as Tor keeps printing her books in hardcover…).

This latest book follows the story of Doctor John Dee, an English astrologer, mathematician, and man of what-passes-for-science-in-the-sixteenth-century, and his assistant, Edward Kelley, who sees angels in a crystal ball, and dabbles in other magic:


“What is the price for knowledge?” Kelley said again, much louder this time. “How much will you pay? Anything?”

Was this part of Kelley’s ritual? Would he pay anything? To know, to finally see the angels…

Another part of his mind told him to stop, to say nothing. There was something wrong with Kelley’s question, something he would understand if only he had time to think… But Kelley importuned him again. “What price?”

“Anything,” Dee said quickly, before he could change his mind.

“Good,” Kelley said. “The angel comes to me. You will see him soon.”

The angel, of course, turns out to be a demon, bent on destroying Dee and his family. Fleeing the demon, Dee and his family wind up in Prague, where their story becomes intertwined with that of Rabbi Judah Loew, and the Jewish tradition that the safety of the world is secured by thirty-six righteous men. If any of those men should die before their appointed time, the world as we know it will end.

Dee and Loew (it’s tempting to make a hip-hop joke here…) are both historical figures, though the tiny bit I know about them is due only to other fiction (Dee turns up in John Crowley’s Aegypt and Love and Sleep, while Loew is famed for creating a golem (with Dee’s aid, in this book), which figures prominently in the early bits of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. That makes for a slightly odd reading experience– I feel like I know something about these characters, but what little I know is really only about other author’s interpretations of these characters. It’s very… meta. Or something.

This book doesn’t match up to Tourists or The Red Magician, but then few books do. There’s something weirdly distant about the character of Dee, which kept me from getting too involved in the story. The characters also seem a touch too modern in their sensibilities, though I can’t put my finger on anything specific that gave me that impression.

Still, a mediocre book by Goldstein would be a triumph for many other authors. And this was an enjoyable read– the plot seems like an unfocused mess for a lot of the book, but everything does come together in the end, in a generally satisfying manner. The very last scene is a touch cheesey, but not too bad. If you like fantasy fiction in the just-this-side-of-magic-realism vein of Crowley and Peter S. Beagle and James P. Blaylock’s ghost stories, give Goldstein a try.

(Previously posted to The Library of Babel)

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