The Tears of the Salamander, by Peter Dickinson

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The Tears of the Salamander, a YA fantasy by Peter Dickinson.

Alfredo and his family live in a great cathedral city in eighteenth century Italy. On a chain around his neck the boy wears (instead of a crucifix, as might be expected), the figure of a golden salamander, a name-day gift from the uncle he never remembers meeting. This figure does not depict, of course, an ordinary salamander, but one of the elemental beings that live in the fires at the heart of certain mountains, creatures of mystical power. Perhaps, the boy hopes, the golden salamander will bring him luck—and so it seems to do, when he is chosen to study and serve as a choir boy at the cathedral.

For Alfredo, music has become a consuming passion. He believes that singing the church music is what God brought him into the world to do. When he has just about reached the age when a decision has to be made about whether he will undergo the operation to preserve his pure soprano voice, his father, mother, and older brother all die as the family bakery goes up in flames. Since Alfredo is now an orphan, and his uncle hasn’t been heard from in years, the choirmaster and the Precentor at the cathedral inform the boy that the choice is now his to make. Since he loves singing in the choir so profoundly, and music seems to be all that he has left, there is little doubt what he will choose.

But at nearly the last moment his uncle reappears and swoops in to claim him. He and the boy, Uncle Giorgio explains, are the last of a proud and ancient line. To castrate Alfredo would be to end that line, and is therefore unacceptable. And as the boy’s natural guardian, he will now take charge of him.

As Alfredo joins his uncle on a voyage to their ancestral home, it quickly becomes clear that there is much that is mysterious about Giorgio. He doesn’t dress like the brother of a simple baker—in fact, he appears to be quite wealthy. He travels under a number of different names and in different disguises as if to cover his tracks. He is deathly ill, and only the mysterious golden liquid which he carries in a flask is able to sustain him—and that just barely long enough for them to reach his home on the slopes of Mount Etna.

Arrived at Giorgio’s remote mansion, Alfredo discovers that his uncle possesses marvelous abilities, that he is “the Master of the Mountain” controlling the fires of the live volcano, and that Alfredo himself is now heir to his uncle’s wealth and magic powers. But though he is thrilled by the magnificent prospects opening up before him, he also discovers much to disturb him.

Uncle Giorgio keeps a live salamander imprisoned in his furnace, that he may draw from the tears of this salamander the universal medicine that is keeping him alive. The salamander is also the source of molten gold, which Giorgio draws off and allows to harden, the source of his riches. By singing with and communing with his uncle’s captive, Alfredo learns more about these magical creatures. The salamanders that live in the molten lava of the volcano are beings of fire, power, and music. Their mystical fires can be used to accomplish great things, but emanations from the furnace are also dangerous: they are killing Uncle Giorgio with a cancer in his throat. And yet Giorgio claims that through the power of his sorcery he and Alfredo can live forever. Most distressing to the boy is the contempt and cruelty his uncle inflicts on his servants. And then there is the salamander in the furnace, stolen from the freedom and the fiery glory of its natural home to serve the sorcerer in captivity.

As we learn more about Uncle Giorgio’s power over fire, and the fact that Giorgio and Alfredo’s father were estranged, it seems too convenient, not to mention suspicious, that Alfredo’s parents were killed just when the dying man desperately needed an heir that he could train in the uses of his sorcery. Yet there are worse revelations still ahead. The sorcerer’s plans for the boy are not nearly so benign as it first appeared. Dare he challenge his uncle’s power, when his own is still so new and untrained?



To be honest, I found the prose in this book a little bland. (Not just because it’s a YA book, because some YA and even children’s fiction has stunning prose.) But the brilliance of the central concept, a combination of alchemy, ceremonial magic, and sacred music, and the way it all came together in a way that was original, and yet felt completely natural and authentic to the period, drew me in despite the sometimes pedestrian prose. And there were places—such as a scene where Alfredo and the servant boy Toni use music to summon angels of fire—where the words and the images they evoked did briefly soar.

Most of all, Dickinson displays a deep, intuitive understanding and knowledge of the symbols of traditional alchemy and historical magic, their ancient roots as well as their use in the 18th century, which, as someone who has been fascinated by those very subjects for years, I found particularly satisfying.
 

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