Shadows in the Stone: A Book of Transformations

Written by Jack Dann
Review by Kristen McDermott

Dann is a well-regarded editor of many science fiction and fantasy anthologies. In this historical fantasy based on Renaissance hermetic mysticism, he imagines an apocalyptic war between the demiurges Yaldabaoth (known in our world as Jehovah) and the archangel Gabriel, over no less than the fate of the universe itself.

Unfortunately, this audacious concept is basically a video game in book form, as Renaissance Italian luminaries like Pico della Mirandola and various Borgias scramble to do the supernatural bidding of these mythic divinities. The protagonists (Mirandola’s apprentice, Lucien, and the Hermione-Grangerish Louisa, a time-traveling refugee from the 19th century who is also an avatar of the benevolent demiurge Sophia, goddess of wisdom) are teenagers who enjoy the superhuman endurance of video game figures, with not much more character development. They are aided in their complicated and repetitive battles and escapes by Gabriel’s reality-shifting “sapphire tablet,” a glorified (literally) iPad that controls the universe and provides mysterious, convenient portals from one overdescribed level of reality to another.

The reader soon becomes hopelessly confused as alliances and universes shift and new characters are added with nearly every chapter. Dann’s knowledge of Renaissance Neoplatonic mysticism and Biblical exegesis is truly impressive, but this dense, formless narrative is almost impossible to get through.