Lisa Goldstein, The Alchemist's Door (Tor, 2002)

Lisa Goldstein writes stories about magic and illusionists and countries that may not exist. She blends true history with fictionalized fantasy. She sees conspiracies and coincidences where none should occur. She is sometimes mistaken for Winona Ryder.

The Alchemist's Door takes place mostly in 1580's Prague. The city is a nexus of great magical energy, where the barrier that separates the world of men and the world of demons has grown thin. Noted astrologer and alchemist Doctor John Dee comes to Prague hoping for an audience with King Rudolf. He and his associate Edward Kelley use their scrying glass to talk to angels (though Dee has never seen them), and make their living on the patronages of the wealthy and powerful. Rabbi Judah Leow is also in Prague, living in its Jewish Quarter. Dee helps Leow create a golem to protect the Quarter from the persecution of the mad King, and in their friendship they discover a frightening fact that could threaten the very existence of the world itself.

Thirty-six righteous men are the pillars of reality. None of these men know of their chosen task, but if one dies before his time, the world will be unmade, then re-sculpted by dark forces to a most horrifying existence. Dee and Loew set off on a quest to discover the thirty-sixth man and protect him from the likes of King Rudolf, who wishes to kill the man and remake the world in his image. Along the way, they are met with Erzsébet Báthory (a vampiric countess who hopes to summon evil through the bloodletting of innocents), a non-corporeal demon who has pursued Doctor Dee from his home in England, and the treachery and betrayal of Edward Kelley.

Normally, I probably would not have picked up this book, if not for the absolutely gorgeous cover art by Gregory Manchess. The beginning is a bit slow and unclear, but get past the first couple of chapters and the novel sucks you in, forcing you to keep reading until the very end. John Dee is a real historical figure, and has been written about recently as a power-hungry scoundrel in Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede. But Goldstein portrays a sympathetic Dee, one who loves his ever-increasing family and wishes to protect the world from evil. He must endure the perils of haunted houses, unfriendly countries, a beggar-woman who is not what she appears, and other alchemists bent on discovering the Philosopher's Stone. And through all this, he must summon the strength to save the world from itself.

[Jason Erik Lundberg]

Find out more about The Alchemist's Door at Lisa Goldstein's official Web site.