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The Alchemist's Door
Lisa Goldstein
Tor Books, 286 pages

The Alchemist's Door
Lisa Goldstein
Lisa Goldstein was born in 1953 in Los Angeles, California. She received a B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1975 and was the co-owner of Dark Carnival Bookstore, Berkeley, California, between 1976 and 1982.

Lisa Goldstein Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Dark Cities Underground & Reading List of Lisa Goldstein
SF Site Review: Walking the Labyrinth

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Ms Goldstein's reputation precedes her: her first novel, The Red Magician, was winner of the American Book Award in 1982, as well as listed in Neil Barron's standard reference, Fantasy & Horror: A Critical and Historical Guide, as one of the finest works of fantasy published in the last half of the twentieth century. A number of her other novels -- Summer King, Tourists, Walking the Labyrinth, and The Dream Years -- are also included as notable, and the latter narrative is among David Pringle's Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels. So one comes to her latest work with a certain amount of expectation. John Clute observes in his Encyclopedia of Fantasy that "LG is a deceptively quiet writer." However, with The Alchemist's Door the author is possibly too deceptive or quiet.

The premise to this novel, announced in the author's introductory, is a meeting between the famous English alchemist, John Dee, and his contemporary in the hermetic sciences, Rabbi Judah Loew:

"Whether the Elizabethan student of the occult Dr. John Dee and Rabbi Judah Loew, who is credited with creating the golem, ever met in Prague in the 1580s is not recorded. But it is not recorded that they didn't."
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Using this imagined meeting as the basis for her latest fabulation, the author weaves a tale incorporating various historical incidents and recorded arcane investigations, as well as drawing from the culture and folklore of Eastern Europe and Jewish tradition, devices she turned to successfully in earlier narratives, such as The Red Magician and Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon. Dee, with the connivance of his assistant, the somewhat shadowy Edward Kelly, in an attempt to commune with angels, has instead accidentally raised a demon, whose threatening presence forces Dee to flee England along with his family in hope that the spirit will be unable to follow. After wandering the continent in search of a patron, Dee, with Kelly in tow, eventually ends up in Prague, where he sets about arranging an audience with Rudolf II, the current Holy Roman Emperor, also sometimes known as the Mad King of Bohemia and Hungary. Rudolf is said to have his own alchemical interests, and Dee hopes to gain his interest. While awaiting the audience, Dee coincidentally and, as later events will prove, providentially encounters Judah Loew.

It soon becomes apparent that Dee is not the only student of the occult who has been attracted to Prague. The city seems infested with astrologers, charlatans and other students of the hermetic arts, including such notable contemporaries as Michael Sendivogius, Mamugna, and the Scottish alchemist, Alexander Seton. Everyone seems to sense that something important is about to happen in Prague, that the ancient city is the nexus for some impending and arcane event. Nor has Dee been successful in escaping his demon, which all too soon manifests itself, warning of dire consequences. And Dee has begun to question his assistant's motives, only to find himself betrayed and incarcerated by the King. Driven by force of need and circumstance, he soon joins in an at times uneasy alliance with Judah Loew, setting out to rid himself not only of the demon, but a greater danger that spirit's presence may pose. For Dee has dabbled in magics whose true nature is only now beginning to become known.

While full of historical anecdote and alchemical reference tailored to titillate interest, the storyline to The Alchemist's Door tends to wander, threatening to become a travelogue of hermetic interests, despite its grounding in Dee's actual travels in Europe. The stay at Prince Laski's estate seems to serve little narrative purpose, other than to confirm Dee's itinerary during his visit to Poland in the early 1580's. The episodes at King István's castle in Transylvania appear predicated solely upon providing an excuse to encounter the infamous Blood Countess, Erzsébet Báthory (whose atrocities did not begin until long after Dee had returned to England), and seems similarly digressive, as in part does the later stay with Count Vilém, regardless of any accuracy or reference to historical fact or incidence. In her adherence to the alchemist's recorded and chronological travels, the author risks diverting the reader from the central impetus of her narrative, with the end result appearing pendulous to the development of her plot.

As suggested by Clute, Ms Goldstein's themes and use of metaphor here tend to be understated. In her exploration of the union of opposites, alienation, spiritual belief, or the speculations into the nature of existence and identity as represented by Loew's creation and interaction with the golem, the author wields a light touch -- some might say too light. There is almost an impression of voyeurism in the manner with which the author touches upon certain themes, such as the sins of the father, sexual inequality or the transmigration of the soul, glimpsed briefly only to be as quickly led away, leaving one feeling like a window shopper looking in upon the author's world, or a tourist taking in the sights, the latter impression only further heightened by the incidental wandering of the narrative's superficial plot.

While in certain respects well-crafted, in the final analysis The Alchemist's Door seems somewhat attenuated and adrift in terms of its own intentions, neither serving as mere entertainment, nor completely succeeding as metaphor. Instead, the novel appears as but a brief excursion, a potentially intriguing exercise and excuse to play with historical anecdote that becomes all too fleeting in its rewards. One needs only to look to John Crowley's ongoing Aegypt Quartet, and his use of similar motifs, to view what could have been accomplished.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.


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