The Thaumatophane was a magical machine sought after by the alchemists of the Middle Ages, an all-powerful invention that not only turned lead into gold but gave omnipotence to its possessor. In this first in the trilogy, two teenagers, Jake and Helen, meet by chance at a literary festival in Florence, Italy, where the contestants have to recite passages written by Dante, the Italian renaissance poet. They soon become fast friends: Helen, daughter of a failed marriage between a somewhat seedy Irish art dealer and a Swiss heiress has been raised by her aunts in the chill and reserved world of Swiss chateaux and private schools. A loner, wary of opening herself to others, she longs for her London-based dad to pay more attention to her. Jake, from a rowdy Scottish-Italian Glasgow family, is a happy-go-lucky jack-in-the-box kind of guy, not a great intellectual but with a good solid head on his pragmatic shoulders. Together, they make a fine pair. |
Very quickly they fall into a world of practitioners of black magic and the occult arts, for Helen's father has borrowed a 16th-century painting called "The Secret of the Alchemist" from her aunts' private collection and thinks he can hold his buyer up for a higher price by pretending to lose it for a few weeks. He meanwhile smuggles it out of Switzerland and secretes it in Venice, leaving the key for his daughter to find in an ornate desk he ships to Florence for repairs.
The alchemist of the painting is Ruggiero de Montefeltro, an Englishman who went to Italy in the 16th century and began to learn the secrets of the occult at the hands of a magician in order to lay his hands on the Thaumatophane. His own fate is left unclear until the apocalyptic finish to this riveting novel, which takes place in an ancient house in Provence where the very Gates of Hell are opened.