Sunday, August 19, 2007

A Real Alchemist

All the way up to our cabin in Maine, we listened to The Alchemist's Son: Dr. Illuminatus, by Martin Booth. It was a revelation to me. The book appeared in 2003, and it was my husband who checked out the audio version from the Boston Public Library main branch to take along on our trip.

The story is simple, and one used over and over again in British and American fantasy: children (in this case, siblings) take up residence in an Old House in the Country, and magic ensues. In this book, Philippa and her brother Tim move into a manor house and discover Sebatian, an alchemist's son, living in the walls, awakened from a kind of magical torpor. He's either 12, or 612, depending on how you calculate his age. He's got to stop a villain, DeLudeac (sp? sorry, this was an audiobook), from assembling all the parts he needs to make an army of homunculi.

The story is informed both by Booth's considerable knowledge of history, and how to use it in a story, his feel for magic (he does drawn-out creepy sequences loaded with Rising Dark in the same vein as Susan Cooper), and his great use of the skeptical brother, Tim, as a foil for the more introspective Pip. Pip finds a mysterious plant in the garden; Tim looks it up on the web. I was constantly brought up short by the fact that this felt like a classic, written a generation ago, except for its mentions of the Human Genome Project and the Internet.

A really enjoyable book: suspenseful, funny, humane and not a stray or unnecessary word in it. And don't you have to love any writer who introduces you to a noun like "ha-ha"? A book, and a writer, most highly recommended.

It wasn't until the final CD had finished and the copyright notice came on that we heard with dismay that it was registered to the "Estate of Martin Booth." He died in 2004, not yet sixty, and this was one of four books he wrote in the last year of his life. There's a partial list of his many fiction and nonfiction books for all ages at Fantastic Fiction, and an entry in Wikipedia. The only trouble is, after reading the sequel to Dr. Illuminatus, where to start?

So here is to Martin Booth, alchemical writer, illuminating the dark with words.

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