Just how different are the worlds of science and magical thinking? In the seventeenth century, the advent of natural philosophy, they were closely intertwined. Perhaps they were even the same.
Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, a quiet linen draper in Delft, has discovered a new world: the world of the little animals, or animalcules, that he sees through his simple microscopes. These tiny creatures are everywhere, even inside us. But who will believe him? Not his wife, not his neighbours, not his fellow merchants—only his friend Reinier De Graaf, a medical doctor. Then he meets an itinerant goose girl at the market who lives surrounded by tiny, invisible voices. Are these the animalcules also? Leeuwenhoek and the girl form a curious alliance, and gradually the lives of the little animals infiltrate everything around them: Leeuwenhoek’s cloth business, the art of his friend Johannes Vermeer, the nascent sex trade, and people’s religious certainties. But Leeuwenhoek also needs to cement his reputation as a natural philosopher, and for that he needs the Royal Society of London—a daunting challenge, indeed, for a Dutch draper who can’t communicate in Latin.
“A vigorous, satisfying historical novel full of interesting and likable characters. To people who do truly unusual things, such as discover microscopic life, or paint Vermeer’s pictures, or hear what plague bacilli are saying, these things are just what they do. Sarah Tolmie’s novel catches this intersection of the everyday with the unearthly and holds it for us like a drop of pond water under the lens, vibrant with life and activity, fascinating in its strangeness and its familiarity.” (Ursula K. Le Guin)
Two Travelers combines two existential tales, the short novel The Burning Furrow and the novelette The Dancer on the Stairs, in one volume. Dedicated to Isak Dinesen and the memory of Seven Gothic Tales.
In “Dancer on the Stairs,” a woman wakes up on a stone staircase in a baroque palace, not speaking the language of the place and lacking the chemical signature that allows people to identify each other within a complex social hierarchy. Unable to communicate in words, she resorts to dance. In “The Burning Furrow,” a man who runs a diner in present-day America is also a freedom-fighter in the northern, courtly realm of Dinesen. His people are abused foreigners at home, the servants of strangers, bound not by their overlords, but by their world itself, through a ritual known as the burning of the furrows. Only he and his family are free—for a time. Now that time is ending.
The Stone Boatmen (Aqueduct Press, 2014) is a tale of three cities, separated by oceans, lost to one another long ago: the first, the city of rituals, of ceremonies; the second, the city of words, of poetry; and the third, the city of the golden birds, of dreams. In their harbors stand the stone boatmen, pointing outward toward the unknown. Now the birds are fostering a new-found relationship of the three cities of the ancestors, and the voyages of the ship Aphelion and its crew are beginning to rebuild the links.