Book Review: The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence M. Principe

I picked up this book as research for my upcoming novel where my antagonist is an alchemist. This was just perfect for it. The book goes over the history of alchemy, the major alchemist (their thoughts and life and work), and the principles of alchemy, and of course, it discusses the quest for Philosopher’s Stone. This book gives you a good general picture of alchemy. Its emphasis is on that alchemy was a genuine scientific discipline, and it advanced our understanding of metals, minerals, and chemical processes. But it is true that the “noble art” was cloaked with mystery as the alchemist used verbose language, symbolism, and allegories to hide their recipes. This is maybe the reason why alchemy has gained an esoteric and spiritual reputation. More so after chemistry took over and the likely hood of finding the recipe for Philosopher’s Stone diminished.

The book was interesting to read. At times, it was a chore as there were so many facts, names, and minerals fitted into a small paragraph, and I wanted to remember and note them all, but it is understandable if you need to cram all know history in 281 pages (excluded Asia as according to the writer that differs a lot from western alchemy.) When I read this book, I was amazed at how rich the symbolism of alchemy was. How it has influenced art and poetry, and the other way around. How mercury and sulfur were portrayed as woman and man and their union hid behind alchemist recipes. Also, I found it amazing that the writer himself had tried out the Philosopher’s Stones recipes and wrote what went wrong and what worked with them and why. Amazingly the key to getting the ancient recipes working was impurity and iron tools. The writer’s passion and knowledge for the subject jumped out of the pages and made it easier to trust his writing.

I think this is a perfect summary of western alchemy and perfect for those who want to know more what the true art was all about.

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