________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 7 . . . . November 23, 2007


The Alchemist’s Dream.

John Wilson.
Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books, 2007.
248 pp., hardcover, $16.95.
ISBN 978-1-55263-934-4.

Subject Headings:
Bylot, Robert-Juvenile fiction.
Hudson, Henry, d. 1611-Juvenile fiction.
Dee, John, 1527-1608-Juvenile fiction.
Northwest Passage-Discovery and exploration-British-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Ian Stewart.

**½ /4


Bylot developed a fascination for the world of learning he had entered. He absorbed every fact that was thrown at him and took to his lessons with enthusiasm, but his favourite subject was geography. He would spend whatever small amount of free time he had in Dee's great library poring over maps and globes. Bylot would sit for hours, tracing diverse coastlines with his finger and imagining the voyages of discovery that had determined them. In his mind he sailed with Drake, Magellan, the Cabots, de Gama and a host of others.


As he always does in his historical fiction, John Wilson has crafted a multi-faceted work taking his young readers deeper into the historical past than most other authors dare. However, the danger in creating such a complex work is that some of the facets might shine less brightly than others. The Alchemist’s Dream is a very complex, slow paced work; consequently, only sophisticated readers will be able to work their way through it. Even so, many will find its challenges daunting.

     The story takes place in late 16th and early 17th century England. It is a fictional accounting of the life of a little-known sailor-navigator named Robert Bylot who sailed with Henry Hudson, Thomas Button and other explorers during the first years of the 17th century. Bylot lives in a strange world where the disciplines of mathematics, astronomy, geography, and chemistry co-exist in an uneasy alliance with alchemy, astrology and magic. Although scientists claim rational and empirical purposes govern their scientific studies and see themselves as "moderns," in actuality, they are still tied to a medieval world view where mysterious supernatural forces govern the universe.

     Young Bylot was a good student who dreamed of becoming a famous explorer. Upon his father's death, John ventures off to London to become a sailor and hopefully learn the craft of navigation. Inexplicably, John Dee, the most famous mathematician and magician of the age, takes Robert under his care and begins to teach him the mathematics and geography necessary to become a sailing master. Wilson dives deeply into the arcane world of early Modern European cartography and alchemical theory. Very little of these topics will be immediately comprehensible to high school level readers. Independent research is a must if they want to appreciate Wilson's narrative to any degree.

     The novel shines when Wilson's talent for writing historical fiction comes to the forefront. His descriptions of life and death in plague ridden London are first rate. Robert's life changes for the worse as he and his sister are forced to flee the city in the hope of surviving the pestilence. Shattered by the death of his sister, Robert returns to Dee's house where he renews his studies in geography and alchemy. He also begins to develop an insider's view of the conniving and back biting that went on among the men vying for power and wealth in the new world. Following continued study, he finally gains a position on a voyage of exploration. After establishing himself as a competent navigator, Bylot signs on with Henry Hudson on his ill-fated voyage to find the North-West Passage. Unknown to others, Dee gives Bylot a surreptitious assignment to find the location and bring back the most powerful of alchemical secrets.

     Of the four books by Wilson critiqued for CM by this reviewer, The Alchemist’s Dream is by far the most demanding. Although the book is receiving a cautious recommendation, it is only suitable for advanced readers.


Ian Stewart teaches at David Livingstone School in Winnipeg, MB.

Editor’s note: The Alchemist's Dream was nominated for a 2007 Governor General’s Literary Award in the Children’s Literature (English) Text category.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.