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.