Surely, basing a novel on a historical character presents as many problems as it solves. On the one hand, you have the life of the character laid out before you, sometimes in great detail, sometimes in lesser, offering plenty of meat for your plot. All you need is a structure to hang it on. On the other hand, you have the life of the character laid out before you, and if you deviate too far from it, you might as well make up the whole thing from scratch, rendering the exercise moot.
This latter problem at times interferes with the flow of events in Lisa Goldstein's The Alchemist's Door. It's a frustrating situation, because there are few more fascinating historical characters upon whom to base a novel than the English scientist, mathematician, and occultist John Dee. Thought to be Shakespeare's model for Prospero, the wizard of The Tempest, his work resonates in occult circles to this day; he cast a long shadow in Victorian spiritualism, and his system of Enochian magic is well known. He was also a respected mathematician, with considerable skill at navigation, and cast horoscopes for both Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I. Around the middle of his career, he fell in with Edward Kelley, a convicted forger who had both ears cut off as punishment. Kelley claimed the ability to see visions of angels in a crystal Dee owned, thereby foretelling the future. Invited to Poland by the nobleman Albert Lasky, the two spent several years thereafter traveling the Continent, visiting Prague, where much of Goldstein's novel is set. Prague in itself is a terribly interesting city with a long and tumultuous history, including two famous defenestrations where people were thrown out of windows as a final debating tactic.
None of that really comes into play in The Alchemist's Door, however, which posits that Dee's reason for leaving London in favor of Poland in 1583 was that a demon was after him. As the book opens, Dee, his family, and Kelley are all leaving England in great haste; the demon, presumably, is at their heels.
This immediately brings up what might be called a question of monster logic. The demon, presumably, has incorporeal form; the author doesn't tell us. The reader might be moved to ask what Dee thinks fleeing will accomplish; Dee himself recalls a fairly common European legend involving people who move house to escape troublesome fairies, only to discover that the fairies have packed themselves in the baggage. Despite this tale, off Dee and Kelley and company flee to the Continent, and the beginning of their adventure.
Meanwhile, in Prague, Goldstein delves into another element of occult lore. She introduces the character of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezulel, another historical figure credited with having created a working golem. Though many tales of golems have a Sorcerer's Apprentice sort of cast, clay automata who go on with whatever task they were last entrusted until forcibly brought to a halt, there are also legends of golems as protectors of urban Jewish populations from persecution, and it is this role that the golem in Goldstein's novel adopts. Both Loew and Dee hope for an audience with Rudolf, the Holy Roman Emperor.
All of that is quite enough for a bang-up yarn, but Goldstein adds still more: in addition to his work with the golem, Loew is also troubled by a Jewish legend that the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of thirty-six righteous men. (Fans of Neil Gaiman may recall his passing reference to this legend in the Sandman story "Three Septembers and a January," which also featured Mark Twain.) Dee's demon sees an opportunity to turn the world upside down, for if any of these men die before their appointed time, the forces of evil will be able to remake the world to their liking. There is also, supposedly, a door in Prague through which mystical forces enter the world -- the Alchemist's Door of the title. Prague definitely was a hotbed for magic of all kinds at the time this story is set, so it makes sense that Dee in his quest for knowledge would have been drawn to it, demon or no demon. Unfortunately for him, one of the thirty-six righteous men lives right in the city, and the demon is determined to find him before Dee and Loew can even manage to have a civil conversation. Plus, Emperor Rudolf is as crazy as any inbred European Renaissance monarch.
And that's just the setup. The sheer number of elements Goldstein has introduced here is dizzying; it would take a substantially longer novel to make sense of them all, and the author wisely gives us only the necessary bits and pieces. Dee and Loew, knowledgeable as they are, are also understandably confused by the maelstrom of politics and sorcery into which they've thrust themselves and, equally understandably, have a hard time working their way out again. They have some help, chiefly in the form of a beggar woman from the streets of Prague, intriguingly named Magdalena. The other magicians and sorcerers they meet -- most of whom are, again, drawn from history -- tend to be more of a hindrance than a help in the long run, but they do provide some interesting local color. Dee and Loew, not always on the same side, not always able to trust one another, are comprehensibly human despite their great stores of knowledge (Dee, among other things, possessed at one time the finest private library in England, totalling over 4000 books -- an impressive number even today). If the plot pulls them hither and thither, well, how could it not, with all of the above and more mixed in?
In fact, the chief criticism to be leveled here is that the story often doesn't go far enough. The demon, for instance, can be curiously unfocused for such a malevolent force, and when it does manifest, it voices the sorts of threats one might expect from a televangelist's exorcism-by-phone. Granted, the medieval mindset was different, and that even in the Renaissance, communicating with angels and demons was considered very real -- Dee's aim at the outset of all of this is to achieve a direct communication with God -- but even so, the demon generally isn't as menacing as it needs to be. Nor is Emperor Rudolf, who takes counsel from his servants and has his courtiers do the polishing; nutty, to be sure, but at least he doesn't make his horse an advisor. And to top it off, Ned Kelley, who was reportedly very convincing even without his ears, never quite convinces us of his rogueishness; in fact, he comes off as rather peevish.
And then, for various reasons, Dee and company make a little side trip into the eastern European countryside, where they run into none other than Elizabeth Bathory. Now, violence for the sake of violence isn't that appealing in fiction, and usually indicates a lack of imagination, but if one is going to invoke one of the most notorious names in European nobility, one had better be prepared to spill some blood. In fact the section of the novel that takes place in Hungary is oddly tame, and adds little to the plot.
It does, however, highlight the problem mentioned above. Goldstein has an embarrassment of riches at hand when it comes to making life difficult for her characters and generally advancing her tale of mystical malevolence. Faced with this, she makes some unexpected and not entirely successful choices, and the novel's climactic confrontation, which should be the peak of the drama, is curiously unfocused.
The other difficulty is the distressing lack of detail in some of the settings, Prague in particular. This is an ancient and mysterious city, particularly to Westerners, but it never fully emerges from the pages of the novel. There's even a perfect opportunity late in the book, as two of the characters perambulate all over town, to get to know the city a little better, but the specific details that make Prague Prague -- as opposed to, say, London -- never come clear.
Despite these shortcomings, The Alchemist's Door is an intriguing look into the occult world of the Renaissance -- a period when alchemy teetered on the brink of true chemistry as proto-scientists searched for the Philosopher's Stone. Readers may be inclined to learn more about Dee in particular; often dismissed as a charlatan even in his own lifetime, his accomplishments as a mathematician and scientist are generally overlooked in favor of his exploits in magic. The Alchemist's Door, with its emphasis on madness, morality, and the price paid for power, ends up favoring Dee the rationalist over Dee the sorcerer.
Copyright © 2003 Genevieve Williams
Genevieve Williams is a carbon-based lifeform residing in the Pacific Northwest region of the continental United States. Writer, editor, and bookslinger extraordinaire, she's also a Clarion West 2002 graduate with a compulsive passion for the written word. Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.
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