Bosnak (Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel, 2007, etc.) explores the mysteries of alchemy in the first two volumes of his historical mystery saga.
It is 1666, the Year of the Beast. Mundanus is a 42-year-old Italian alchemist in possession of the fabled Red Sulphur, a substance necessary in the alchemical transmutation of lower metals into gold. He has fled from London in the wake of the Great Fire, landing in enemy Holland to find Helvetius, physician to rulers. Helvetius is a skeptic of alchemy, and Mundanus hopes to convince him of its legitimacy, knowing full well that the physician’s connections may turn his mission into an international incident with consequences for the war between the English and the Dutch. Even more explosive is the triangle that forms among Mundanus and two members of Helvetius’ household: his wife, Marianne Schweitzer-Van Os, and her sickly niece, Clara. The story that follows is one of political intrigue and philosophical debate, a journey that moves across Europe and features some of the greatest personalities of the age, including William of Orange, Benedict de Spinoza, Christiaan Huygens, and Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek. It’s a tale not simply of the cloak-and-dagger world of alchemy, but of the painful and colorful birth of modern science. Bosnak is a skilled writer of the period, summoning it for readers in all its inglorious grime: “I usually am aware of new odors for a week or so, and then the particular stench disappears behind the din. After months away from cities I now inhale a human cesspool of stale sweat and urine mixed in with the excrements of animals. Somehow people stink more than pigs.” He strikes a great balance among history, character, and the esoteric. Alchemy is explored in significant detail, and deliberative discussions between erudite thinkers (with many allusions to the events of the day) occupy large sections of the novel. Even so, Bosnak manages to keep a thriller’s pace and to animate his characters so that they are not overwhelmed by the elaborate setting. The story is incomplete (Book 3 is forthcoming), but the result so far is mysterious and propulsive.
A fun, esoteric mystery set in early modern Europe.