Alchemy of Glass

Written by Barbara Barnett
Review by Thomas j. Howley

In 1893, walking along the Lake Michigan shoreline outside Chicago, Gaelan Erceldoune, apothecary and glass maker, runs into a stranger named Nicola Tesla. An interesting conversation ensues. This multi-period novel jumps back and forth in time and at some points extends into a possible future. Gaelan, it seems, is immortal… or maybe not.

The most interesting sequences take place in London in 1826, where Gaelan is desperately seeking to find a cure for a deadly disease not seen for hundreds of years and now on the verge of devastating the country once more. He is aided by a young noblewoman who he has saved from a botched abortion and by a medical doctor who doesn’t quite share his profession’s disdain for apothecaries who are considered frauds. Gaelan must travel to a mysterious venue in Scotland to find a remedy. Meanwhile, in the present day outside Chicago, an acquaintance of Gaelan, Dr. Anne Shaw, tries to tie up strings left by Gaelan who she believes died in Scotland just weeks earlier. Ultimately Gaelan and Dr. Shaw re-unite to try to save the entire world from a catastrophe which may arise because of their own actions.

Though billed as a fantasy of Celtic mythology and fairy lore, I found this novel to be much more of a well-researched science-infused mystery leveraging modern technology, medieval and modern medicine, and fascinating, well-chosen periods of history. Ironically, this is a quite good book where I found the protagonists unlikeable, especially Anne Shaw. Their unnecessary overuse of the F-word seems just odd. Yet the historical characters – Arthur Conan Doyle, Tesla, and Thomas the Rhymer – are remarkably engaging. Expecting a trite and fashionable socially relevant ending, I was completely surprised and pleased to be wrong. I gladly recommend this intelligent book.