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The Alchemist's Door [Paperback]

Lisa Goldstein


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Book Description

19 Jun 2003
In the waning days of the 16th century, English alchemist and astrologer John Dee flees to Prague, pursued by a terrifying demon. It is a time of strife and persecution, when darkness and chaos threaten to overcome the forces of light and reason. Dee seeks out Rabbi Judah Loew and assists him in creating a Golem, a magical man fashioned from clay. Together they begin a desperate search to find the fabled 36th Righteous Man, for ancient prophecies foretell that if the last righteous man dies, the world will end...and dark spirits will make it in their own image.

Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: St Martin's Press; Reprint edition (19 Jun 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0765301512
  • ISBN-13: 978-0765301512
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 12.6 x 1.8 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,855,226 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"Lisa Goldstein is one of our best writers. Indeed, with "Tourists "and "A Mask for the General", I came to the conclusion that she simply was the best writer in our field today, bar none. Her view of reality is so quirky but true, her characterization so sympathetic yet brutally honest, her writing so extravagantly clear."--Orson Scott Card"What an intriguing read this is! It is a substantial tale of angels and demons, fantasy and horror, set within a richly depicted historical milieu and fraught with an aura of foreboding that draws one in from the very first page." -"Booklist "(starred review)

About the Author

Lisa Goldstein is the author of seven widely acclaimed novels, including "The Dream Years, A Mask for the General, Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon, Tourists, Summer King, Winter Fool, "and "Dark Cities Underground," as well as numerous works of short fiction, recently collected in the anthology "Travellers in Magic." Goldstein lives in Oakland, California.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Bad history, mediocre fantasy... 9 Aug 2003
By L. J. Efron - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
While trying to weave a believable story the author added a whole bunch of historical figures some of which were completely redundant (Erzsebet). I will not even go to all the little weird historical "info" the author shoved into the story (rather than "woven"), such as Dee's introduction to Coffee and to Tea. I wont dare to ask if the author really believes that a man who worked in Queen Elizabeth's palace for many years was not familiar at all with these drinks...

Both the character of Dee and of Rabbi Loew were described in a very unreliable manner. Does the author truly believe that Rabbi Loew, a genius of his time, spoke only German, Czech and Hebrew? In Goldstein's world the Maharal (as Loew is commonly known) does not speak nor understand Latin and his scholarly knowledge is quite limited even though the historical figure was a renaissance man. Dee on the other hand looses complete contact with his historical figure, as he is portrayed almost as a Harry Potter minus the wand, striding about with incantations for opening doors and breaking windows.

Instead of feeling drawn into an authentic world of the Occult and complicated ceremonial magic one witnesses Dee's Harry-Potter-like incantations, which really ruin any chance of taking the book seriously. Loew too talks about magic as if it is something completely ordinary without any kind of reference to the problems arising in Jewish culture around these issues. Loew's magic is considered Kabbalah, but what about Dee's? How can Loew wander around with his spell casting Harry-Potter friend without any referral to the source of his powers? When Loew does speak of magic, as in the last scene in which he describes the surge of magic around the emperor, he does so as if he is a Dungeons & Dragons character and not like he is any type of historical or even fictitious Rabbi. In one scene Dee actually offers to teach Loew a certain incantation (?!).

Adding the Golem to the story wasn't really necessary, but even if the author decides otherwise I'd expect her to research enough to know that the Golem, as donated by his very name in Hebrew, *cannot* speak. All of the legends, regarding the Maharal's artificial man, talk of his inability to talk as his trademark. Indeed the book mentions that the Golem has the soul of an animal... this is exactly why he is not supposed to speak according to the inner logic of the story.

The novel's ending and "grand finale", is the point when we find out the identity of the 36th righteous man (I wont go into what the author did to this Jewish Legend), This "finale" is extremely predictable, which is annoying cause one expects some sort of surprise after reading through this Mambo-Jumbo and gets none.

Last but not least, the book skims over months at a time with one sentence, a book such as the Bible can afford being this brief, a novel such as this cannot. It has to give some description that will make the passage of events this quickly believable. Many of the descriptions are lacking and almost none of the characters feel rounded.

Summary: The book feels like a sketch, as other reviewers wrote. The characters are unbelievable even for a fantasy novel. When one writes a fantastic novel and chooses to do so basing it roughly on historical figures, one has to research to make the story succeed. I found that the history was not remotely realistic and the fantasy also failed to take off because of the supposed historical scenery.
Stretching the truth is ok in such as book and I really didn't care about magic playing an active part in the story (heck that's the genres whole point) but why make it so ridiculous. Harry Potter is readable because it doesn't take itself seriously and it isn't set in an historical environment, this book makes too many mistakes in my opinion.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars powerful morality tale 18 Aug 2002
By Harriet Klausner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In 1582, Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley communicate with angels that the latter exclusively sees in the ball of crystal. Though John thought he speaks with God or those close to God, a demon intercepts his thirst for knowledge of God's great plan by threatening John's family especially by possessing little Katherine. John accompanied by his family seeks help in Prague where King Rudolf of the Holy Roman Empire has summoned all the mystics for the mad ruler wants to kill one of the thirty six Righteous Men so that the world is remade in His Highness' image.

In Prague, John meets mystic Rabbi Judah Loew. They join forces to create the Golem to keep the "Thirty-Six" safe for if one of these Righteous Men is slain, legend says the world ends. Controlling the Golom is no easy matter either and then there is the question of what to do with the tempting but forbidden fruit of an ALCHEMIST'S DOOR opened between humanity and the other side.

The prime theme of THE ALCHEMIST'S DOOR is a powerful morality tale focusing on the pride of power leading to excesses and abuses. The story line is at its strongest when the reader follows a historical ethics trail. The occasional well-written sidebars provide insight into Elizabethan era Prague, but also abate the puissant primary plot. Still this fantasy novel is a strong book that uses real sixtieth century persona to entertain while warning the audience on the corruption of power that seems so timely.

Harriet Klausner
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ho-Hum 18 Nov 2002
By Richard Wells - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"The Alchemist's Door," takes what should be an exciting story and through the lack of detail that brings prose to life end up rather ho-hum. It's a story of alchemy, Kabbala, demon possession, shape-shifters, vampires, and the attributes of a "just man," told as a search-mystery; with locations various - Prague, London, Translyvania - but with little but the story to pull the reader into the magic that is, supposedly, all about. Not only are action and locale left sketchy, but characters are somewhat vague as well. Though we're given broad outlines no one but Magdelana, a horribly abused young woman desirous of knowledge, appealed on an emotional level. I was left with the impression this novel was written a bit too quickly, and the author's decision to sacrifice detail showed either a lack of research, or a lack of interest. I was looking for a good read in the fantasy genre, but got a sketch instead.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting history, magic. Logic flaws weaken plot 15 Nov 2002
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Scientist and astrologer John Dee and his family have left the court of Queen Elizabeth fleeing from a demon. The demon pursues them, however, and Dee finds himself in Prague where the mad Emperor demands delivery of the 36th righteous man--the man who's death will lead to the destruction of the world order and an opportunity for a man or demon to reshape the universe. Together with the Rabbi Judah Loew, legendary creator of the golem, Dee searches for the 36th righteous man--and for a way to stop the forces of evil that threaten to overrun Europe. Because the doorway between the universes stands open and demons have begun to make their way back into our world.
Author Lisa Goldstein delivers a deft mixture of history and fantasy. Her writing is clear and keeps the pages turning. I was distracted, however by some of the logic holes. Why, for example, didn't Emperor Rudolf simply kill everyone on his list rather than engage Dee and Loew to find the one man? He certainly didn't show much respect for life. What, exactly, was the whole Erzsebet thing about--was it really only to bring in old Hungarian legends? And what happened to the second demon--the one that could physically manifest itself and that served Kelley? Finally, the ultimate battle seemed anticlimactic and I was left wondering whether Dee really sacrificed much, really made a heroic gesture. Attempting to close to door between the universes would have been a more powerful symbol if Dee had been able to truly use the magics that came through the gateway. Instead, his sacrifice wasn't particularly large, reducing the power of the novel.
THE ALCHEMIST'S DOOR is a pleasant read with its setting in the historically significant period of Elizabeth I, its use of historic characters in alternate history settings, and its travels through the mystical world of Eastern Europe at a time when the Turks were still capable of threatening all of Christendom and when Jews were forced into ghettos.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Impressive! 18 Oct 2002
By Henry W. Wagner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Set in the sixteenth century, The Alchemist's Door chronicles the life of legendary English mathematician, alchemist and astrologer John Dee, the inspiration for Prospero in Shakespeare's Tempest and the title character in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. As the story opens, Dee and his strange associate, Edward Kelley, have accidentally summoned a demon that now dogs Dee's every step. Hoping to evade the demon and improve his fortunes, Dee accepts potential patron Prince Laski's invitation to visit Poland. But the demon follows him there, prompting Dee, his family and Kelley to flee to Prague.
In Prague, Dee senses that something terrible is about to happen. By chance he discovers that the city straddles the border between earth and a demon dimension inhabited by, among other evil entities, the very creature that's been plaguing him. Prague is also home to the mad Emperor Rudolph, a devotee and patron of the black arts, who seeks Dee's assistance in fashioning the legendary Philosopher's Stone.
On a visit to the Emperor Dee has a fateful encounter with fellow mystic Rabbi Judah Loew. Dee and Loew join in a strained alliance, even as the Emperor initiates a pogrom against the Jews of Prague. Loew seeks and receives Dee's assistance in creating a Golem-a man fashioned from clay-to defend the city's Jewish quarter from the Emperor's troops.
Dee also becomes involved in Loew's search for the fabled 36th righteous man. Prophecy foretells that if the last righteous man dies, the world will end, and the dark spirits of the neighboring dimension will remake it in the own image. The Emperor, believing he can influence the shape this new world will take, orders his troops to scour the city to find this man so that he may personally put him to death. Dee, realizing that this is what his demonic tormentor has wanted all along, works with Loew to frustrate the Emperor's apocalyptic plans, even though it may cost him his life.
Some quick research on the Web indicates that Goldstein has done the same thing with John Dee's life that Tim Powers did with Kim Philby's in Declare, exploiting historical gaps and coincidences to tell a story that could have occurred, given certain supernatural assumptions. Thus, she posits a relationship between John Dee and Rabbi Loew that history does not record. Like Powers, she also manages to put human faces on legendary characters, carefully balancing glimpses into their personal lives with the more fantastic action.
The Alchemist's Door is lively and engaging, a skillful blend of history, legend, humor and high adventure, an exciting dark fantasy rich on character and colorful incident. Considering the success of this novel, and the fact that Dee lived another two decades after the events chronicled therein, a sequel seems appropriate. Here's hoping Goldstein is considering one.
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