Death of an Alchemist
Mary Lawrence, Kensington Books, 2015, 15.00, pb, 292pp, 9781617737138
The Rat Man lifted his nose, catching the essence of alchemy, and tasted it on his tongue. Someone had discovered something of import. Someone had come as close as he had once done. Perhaps even closer.
Someone, indeed, has. Or believes he has. Ferris Stannum, one of sixteenth-century London’s many alchemists, is poised to send his formula for immortality off to Cairo for corroboration, when Bianca Goddard, a young chemiste, knocks on his door. She has searched out the venerated alchemist in the hope that he will teach her the process by which herbs may be combined with metals to produce a medicine that will ameliorate symptoms and cure disease.
Once Bianca has proved herself to him, Stannum begins to teach her how to produce the brooding heat that will sublimate metal. But before he can impart all the knowledge his new apprentice requires, Stannum dies of a mysterious hemorrhagic disease that looks a lot like the dreaded sweat.
As Stannum’s landlady, and then his daughter and son-in-law, fall victim to this rapidly fatal malady, Bianca senses that it is not the sweat but a disease not before seen; and when her husband, John, begins to exhibit symptoms, the clock starts ticking on her search for the secret to producing Stannum’s elixir of life.
In the hands of this talented storyteller, what begins as a medical mystery develops into a quest and finally into a tough decision based on the question of eternal life: “If John fights his malady and survives this particular illness, then I believe he will live as long as his body serves his soul. But if his soul is finished with his body, should I concoct an elixir to prevent it from ever leaving?”
The answer may lie with the river-dwelling wraith, Rat Man.
Originally published in Historical Novels Review Issue 76, May, 2016
Kightlinger, Rebecca. "Death of an Alchemist: A Biancha Goddard Mystery." Historical Novels Review 76 (May 2016): 25.
All rights reserved
The Photographer’s Wife
Suzanne Joinson, Bloomsbury, 2016, $26.00, hb, 334pp, 9781620408308
Each betrayal was a closer step to death and he understood that she was all the days of freedom before the war…
Taken from an ailing mother in 1920s England and sent to live with her father, a British architect with the impossible mission of bringing English gardens to Jerusalem, eleven-year-old Prudence Ashton becomes an incidental witness to atrocious secrets memorialized on film by distinguished photographer Khaled Rasul.
In The Photographer’s Wife, Suzanne Joinson has crafted a novel that straddles the years between the two world wars and the gulfs between war pilot Lieutenant William Harrington, investigative photographer Rasul, and the woman they both love.
Close third-person, nonlinear narratives told from Prue and William’s points of view engulf the reader in post-WWI Jerusalem, revealing Prue and Willie in intimate detail while allowing the reader mere glimpses of Eleanora, the photographer’s intriguing wife. It is not until Joinson brings the many threads of their stories together in Prue’s gripping, first-person, present-tense narrative set in 1937 England that the roles of the many players in this perilous game become clear.
While nonlinear narrative, fluctuating tense, and a shifting point of view can render a story confusing and disjointed when attempted by a less-skilled novelist, Joinson masterfully employs sub-plot and subtle detail to take the reader smoothly from character to character, decade to decade, and place to place. The reader, confident in the hands of a true storyteller, is free to settle in and be swept away.
Originally published in Historical Novels Review, Issue 76, May, 2016.
Kightlinger, Rebecca. "The Photographer's Wife." Historical Novels Review 76 (May 2016):43.
All rights reserved.