This impressive new historical novel by Vancouver Island-based writer John Wilson charts the adventures of Robert Bylot, a 17th-century English explorer who accompanied Henry Hudson on his last voyage. The alchemist of the title is John Dee, whose ambition was to recreate a golden age by collecting rare samples of the earth’s four elements. Bylot apprentices under Dee, serving him on his first few sea voyages. Later, he finds himself torn between three conflicting agendas: Dee’s mysticism, a trader’s business interests, and his own hopes of becoming a famous explorer.
Conflict and danger propel this fast-paced narrative. Where the conflict is external – a pirates’ raid, for example – the story works well. But where the conflict is internal – as in the recurring theme of Bylot’s sense of guilt – the novel eddies a bit. In the first few chapters, Bylot is tormented by misplaced guilt over inevitable family deaths – which seems designed to set a precedent for the later burden of guilt that he understandably carries for years after Hudson and his men are abandoned at sea.
The psychological theme may be underdeveloped, but the ambiguity of the characterization is one of the strengths of the book. Like many of the figures in this novel, Bylot is a morally ambiguous character because he is often self-serving. Wilson never writes down to his readers; instead, he challenges them to stretch their vocabulary and level of analysis (and to consult an atlas, since, oddly, there’s no map in this book). The high calibre of writing, together with the thoroughly researched historical detail, make The Alchemist’s Dream a compelling read.