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on 11 March 2009
The author would probably be horribly offended to be compared to historical novelists like C S Forester, but at the end of this novel, that was what I felt I'd read.

Ackroyd is beyond brilliant at knocking out the prose of the past. The sixteenth-century tone of this is spot on - but when all's said and done, it still feels like a bit of schtick done in almost every book he's written.

What we have here is the usual Ackroyd formula of alternating narrators each chapter. The modern-day one goes through the plot feeling poetically ill, and dizzy, and hearing things, but not actually doing anything beyond reporting ghostly experiences in the alchemist's old house. He's there simply because the story requires things from the past to happen to someone - anyone - in the present, and he gets the short straw.

The main action is that set in the past, in which Doctor Dee is attempting to grow an immortal "homunculus", or artificial human, inside a glass tube. Given the past / present split and the two narrators, it seems fairly obvious who this eternal homunculus is going to turn out to be; so much so that the plot changes direction at the last moment, and more or less peters out, rather than resolving itself.

I'd love someone to tell me what this book is actually about. I've read it twice, perhaps three times over 15 years. It certainly isn't a bad book, nor is it ever boring; it's perhaps what Orwell called a "good bad book", meaning there's really nothing there but it still works as entertainment at least.

It's deeply atmospheric, and presents a cogent analysis of how an Elizabethan sage could possibly practise both mathematics and magic, and still somehow manage to hold both in equal intellectual regard. The thought one is left with seems simply to be that the present repeats and bleeds into the past; but really, if so - so what?

If you're new to Ackroyd, Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem is a far better place to start - it's every bit as creepy and has a genuine murder mysery embedded in it, with a brilliant full-circle twist at the end. Doctor Dee, though, is "hardcore" Ackroyd, for the true devotee only.
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on 4 September 2000
Having read all Peter Ackroyd's novels I believe this, along with English Music, to be his best. It captures a period of history and of London in that historical context, that Ackroyd knows so well, and mixes the history of the mystic John Dee with a contemporary story. Parts of the novel are truly frightening and if you live in old house, as I do, it will never quite seem the same place after reading this book.
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on 23 November 2014
This a failed experiment, that is a turgid and difficult read. This novel flits between the 17th century Doctor Dee and the modern day Matthew who has inherited his house, and may or may not be Dee's creation, the homunculus. Unfortunately, neither character is likeable or empathetic, and there is a lack of narrative drive that makes the book a slow read. In addition the passages about Doctor Dee are written in cod-17th century language which is difficult to wade through. Spoiler alert: in the last 3 pages though, all is revealed. The Doctor Dee parts have been stitched together from Dee's actual writings, and Ackroyd has then used them as a basis of a novel. This is a clever premise, but a deeply unsatisfactory book. Avoid and read "Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem" instead.
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on 21 June 2013
I love Ackroyd's books but this one is the exception, I had to force myself to read it and hurried through as I couldn't stand the book, scatter lacking any flow of plot nor interest...sad for such a great writer and a subject such as Dr Dee.......
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on 11 October 2010
I wanted to like this book. I really did. I wanted to know more about John Dee and I'm interested in the Elizabethan period. So why did I hate it so much?

You know what it's like when someone tells you about a dream they've had? And there's no discernible beginning and no narrative and no satisfactory conclusion? Well, Peter Ackroyd is that person. He drones on for hours and hours and tells you every tiny detail of this incomprehensible nightmare that he's been having and you just keep wondering, 'Why are you telling me this?'

When he tells you that a man has inherited an old house from his father and it turns out to have belonged to John Dee, you think this might be an interesting story, but when he wants you to believe that the house is haunted, you start to lose the will to live, and when he tries to convince you that the narrator is a homunculus conjured up by John Dee, you just think 'nutter'.

The final few pages are some sort of apology from the author about having bored you with this tedious book... But really, Peter Ackroyd, that's not good enough! You could have done us all the favour of binning the manuscript of this book before it was published and you could have kept this piece of self-indulgent rubbish in your own fevered imagination instead of letting it loose on members of the reading public who, like me, are going to waste a few precious hours of their lives on reading this rambling, fanciful piece of nonsense.
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on 2 December 2015
I liked the idea of this dual-timeline tale about Matthew Palmer who inherits a house in Clerkenwell from his father, that turns out to have been the home of Doctor Dee. The ghosts of the 16th century start taking over his life. However I found the Doctor Dee bits heavy going and felt they took over and pushed the modern day parts somewhat into the background. I persevered with it though and quite enjoyed it although the final chapter left me baffled as to who was actually narrating - Matthew or the Doctor
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I was really confused by this book and as an avid reader of any book including sciences, mathmatics, history and anything and everything. Going backwards and forwards in time from the middle ages to what I think is nowadays (by the references to cars etc)this book seems far to muddled. The 'prose' of the modern day young man who has just inherited an old house from his father made me think it was set in Victorian times as it was far too Dickenisian for todays language. At one point I did not know where the story changed from the time of Doctor Dee to the modern era. Confusing, rambling and no where near making the good doctor a vibrant, brilliant, misunderstood character.
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on 22 March 2014
A story of mystery, imagination, and deeply researched history that involves you from the first paragraph to the last. I shall never visit the Clerkenwell area of London again without thinking about this book. Peter Ackroyd must be one of our greatest living writers.
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on 20 June 2008
This book was on my 'To Read' list for months and I was thoroughly looking forward to digging into it. I'd seen it on the list of 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die, and read a number of positive reviews. I'm happy to admit there must be SOMETHING positive about this novel, but I'm sorry to say I couldn't find it.

Above all this is just a thinly veiled map of London. We're treated to seemingly endless discriptions of London's streets throughout. Almost every single line in the book that isn't dialogue is a needlessly detailed description of some part of London. While some have seen this as praise worthy, for my part I was bored stiff. It's clear that Ackroyd loves London and knows plenty about it. However, if I'd wanted an account of every square foot of the UK's capital and how lovely it is, I'd consult a tourist guide.

On the rare occasions he's not furnishing us with dull accounts of geography Ackroyd displays no skill whatsoever for creating appealing characters or a gripping plot. The book switches between the modern day and our protagonist Matthew, and the Elizabethan era and the eponymous Dr. Dee. Matthew is as dull as dishwater, while Dee comes across as a moaning old git. Neither is very likeable and it becomes more and more of a chore to read Matthew's inspid guide to London (that allegedly passes for his internal monologue) on the one hand, and Dee's bitter self-aggrandizement on the other. Indeed the Dee character was the most disappointing part of the novel. He's arrogant, rude, unpleasant and shows nothing even approaching humanity. This would be bearable if it weren't for the fact that the other major character is just a mouthpiece for the author's pretentious waffling about what a smashing place London is.

The book falls between far too many stools. It's a half-interesting ghost story mixed with a not-very-interesting contemporary detective element, a painfully boring geography lecture and a guide to Elizabethan England provided by an Alf Garnett type character who's had his sense of humour surgically removed.

Overall it was a huge disappointment that found nearly impossible to finish.
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on 24 September 2010
A fascinating read especially for those who will enjoy Ackroyd's exciting blend of spiritual fantasy with academic historical research and modern fact. The characters pull you into the story and the sense of mystery is sustained throughout. His love for and fascination with London and what existed, may have existed and still may exist is absorbing - it inspires the reader to tread the modern pavements as he has done, in search of those traces of the past. He evokes the sounds, sights, smells and atmosphere of all times with equal vividness.
Having already read several of his: Hawksmoor, Dan Leno and The Limehouse Golem, the History of the Thames etc, I wish I'd read this first because it is perhaps not quite as masterly as those others. But it was nevertheless a treat.
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