THE ALCHEMIST’S DOOR
Tor Books / 288 pages / Reprint edition (April 1, 2003)
Considering the tremendous wealth of legend, ritual, and mysticism in the Jewish faith it is amazing how little of that rich material has been mined for use in fantasy, but Lisa Goldstein is too canny an author to let that oversight continue. In The Alchemist’s Door she weaves bits of this tradition in with an abundance of factual and fictional characters and situations in a 16th century east European setting that form a tapestry is as distinctive as it is spellbinding. And “spell” is the crucial word in that sentence.
Goldstein starts with the historical figures of Doctor John Dee, a noted student of the occult; Rabbi Judah Loew, reputed creator of the golem; and King Rudolph, collector, believer in mysticism, and mentally ill tyrant. As Goldstein begins to push the characters together against the unusual background of 1580s Prague, strange things begin to occur and all of these peculiar phenomenon seem to point unswervingly toward the end of this world. Even worse, they may harken the rise of a new world where Dee’s and Loew’s worst nightmares come to life. Then again, are they really nightmares?
Unless the two mismatched champions work together and work quickly to find the legendary 36th Righteous Man, all is lost. But, how to find this man — or woman — in so little time in a crowded city the size of Prague? They must fight against time, their ruthless enemies, supernatural powers, and their own fears to find the Righteous Man before the forces of darkness can kill him to reshape the world in their evil design. Perhaps the largest obstacle they must overcome is centuries of distrust and fear between Christians and Jews that keep them always from the complete trust they need to succeed.
Prague, Poland, Hungary — Goldstein has chosen a backdrop so atypical and presented it so vividly that it takes its place as what a setting should be in any skillfully crafted fiction: an integral part, almost a character unto itself. Her depth of knowledge does not stop at the surroundings though, but extends to the people, the cultures, and the beliefs, rendering every detail in accurate and intriguing animation.
Especially riveting and often wrenching are the clashes between religions and even within religions. How sad to see how little our understanding has grown over the centuries; how tightly we cling to our prejudices.
But, don’t get the impression that Loew and Dee come to a happily-ever-after insight into each other’s lives and beliefs. The characters, “good” and “bad,” in The Alchemist’s Door tend to be a prickly bunch. Even as they set out to save the world, their glaring flaws are exposed for all to see. Izak, Magdalena, and scores of others who become involved in the battle — all are portrayed honestly, with weakness and faults sometimes seeming to outweigh their positive qualities. The final test will be the true measure.
The Alchemist’s Door is a gift to fantasy readers who want more from their fiction. It is thoughtful, ingenious magic set at an all-out sprint. Sometimes it seem to move as if there were a demon after it…