I’m going to change things up a bit with this review. As I said in my first review, I’ll usually focus on genre fiction. In this case, I’m going to briefly discuss a non-fiction book that could be useful as source material for roleplaying games.
I’ve been looking for a straightforward explanation and/or history of alchemy since I first read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, though the inclusion of alchemy in Ars Magica also peaked my interest. I’ve read a few books on other topics that touched on alchemy, but most of them just mentioned the esoteric and philosophical aspects. Of course, the authors felt compelled to keep those aspects of alchemy as mysterious as possible. I picked up Holmyard’s book in the hopes that I might get beyond ‘lead into gold’, ‘philosopher’s stone’, and ‘nonsensical gibberish’.
Holmyard’s Alchemy turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. He discusses alchemy from a purely historical standpoint, touching on examples of its development and use in Greece, China, Arabia, and medieval Europe. He provides clear explanations of the basic assumptions behind alchemy, giving the reader a solid understanding of why alchemists thought base metals could be transmuted to silver and gold. The assumptions themselves were more philosophy than science, but they were the only basis from which to work.
Holmyard also provides excerpts from some of the more prominent alchemical scholars throughout history. Some of these demonstrate a clear understanding of experimental design and execution, while others are more fanciful. He does include several examples of alchemical symbology, but he also interprets these esoteric passages into clear language rather than leaving the reader to wonder what’s going on.
One chapter is entirely devoted to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of alchemy – apparatus and techniques. Holmyard walks the reader through calcination, sublimation, distillation, and all the other experimental processes alchemists used to affect their transmutations. All the hardware any alchemist would need is described, from pelicans and alembics to water-baths and multi-temperature furnaces. He also discusses the genuine chemistry behind alchemy, further explaining why transmutation seemed possible in the first place.
Holmyard’s Alchemy is a great source for medieval magic-focused games such as Ars Magica or Mage: The Sorcerer’s Crusade. It gives readers a solid understanding of medieval scientific thought and the rationale behind alchemy, along with thorough explanations for how alchemy was actually done. It would also help the players or GMs ‘speak the language’ of medieval science to enhance a game’s historical feel.
I’m not giving Alchemy a standard rating. I’ll just say it’s a good read for anyone interested in the history of alchemy or running/playing a medieval game where alchemy or science may figure prominently.