THE BOOK OF SPLENDOR by Frances Sherwood


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A rich historical from Sherwood (Green, 1995; Vindication, 1993) about 17th-century Prague’s Rabbi Loew, his Golem, some English alchemists, and an obsessed Habsburg emperor.

Many know the story of Rabbi Loew, the saintly, erudite tzaddik (holy man) who made a giant out of mud and breathed life into him. Loew is indeed one of Sherwood’s characters here, but the real protagonist is Rochel, a Jewish seamstress who marries the kindly but dull cobbler Zev because, since she’s of illegitimate birth, no one else will have her. Rochel is one of the best tailors in Europe, and her skill in making clothes for the gentry and courtiers of Hradcany Castle brings her to the attention of Emperor Rudolph II. A vain hypochondriac, Rudolph has heard about two shady English alchemists (John Dee and Edward Kelly) whom he believes have discovered the elixir of immortality, so he brings them to Prague and orders them to produce it for him. Charlatans or not, Kelly and Dee are in a no-win situation: If they fail to create the elixir, Rudolph will have them executed for fraud—but if they succeed, he will put them to death to keep them from revealing the secret to others. Meanwhile, civil unrest is brought about by the rise of Protestantism and threats of Ottoman invasion, giving rise to new resentment against the Jews. So Rabbi Loew creates his Golem, named Yossel, to defend the inhabitants of the Judenstadt ghetto. Naturally, word of Yossel’s exploits (he saves Rochel from drowning, for a start) reaches the emperor, who tries to bring the rabbi into his immortality project. Loew knows it’s always best to keep a good distance from the throne, but he also knows how to bargain—his knowledge in exchange for protection of the Jews. A deal with the devil? Read and see.

Delightful: rich in its characters, vivid in its setting, and genuinely intriguing overall.

Pub Date: July 8th, 2002
ISBN: 0-393-02138-6
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2002


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