The Secrets of Life and Death

Written by Rebecca Alexander
Review by Shannon Gallagher

The Secrets of Life and Death begins with the meeting of the Elizabethan scholar and alchemist, Dr. John Dee, and Countess Elisabeth Bathory, whose infamy was well earned. Alexander takes her reader back into 16th-century Poland as Dee and his assistant, Edward Kelley, journey at the request of the King of Poland to aid his dying niece, none other than the “Blood Countess” herself. Intriguingly, Alexander gives her reader a second plotline set in modern-day England and introduces Jackdaw Hammond. Hammond is a complex character who initially seems to be a black market procurer of various occult “ingredients” but grows into a dynamic, complex heroine who is the perfect counter to the sinister Bathory.

Hammond is drawn to a murder scene in which the victim’s body is found covered in symbols. It is here that she meets Feliz Guichard, a professor of occult symbols, who is called in by the police as an expert consultant. Almost immediately, the two are drawn to one another and soon find themselves on a dangerous path to solving a centuries-old mystery.

The central clue is the diary of Dee’s assistant, Edward Kelley, recounting their time in Poland, and this is the pivot point of Alexander’s narrative as she travels between past and present. Alexander has crafted a gripping page-turner successfully blending history and fiction with magic and sorcery; truly a wonderfully and uniquely inspired novel.