I recall reading a book that was newly or recently released in the mid-to-late 90s which featured an alternative history where alchemy, not science, was discovered.

Many of the prominant characters were real-life scientists, only they were alchemists now. One of the main characters created a pair of shoes which used alchemy to repel water, allowing him to walk on the surface of a river to cross it (though he noted that balance was difficult). He dubbed these 'Jesus Shoes', only to be chastised by his mentor because it would be offensive to the Church.

Another common alchemical object was a communication device which was similar in some ways to a fax machine - what you wrote on one machine was also written on the other, thanks to a crystal. Each machine was paired with exactly one other, and the prevailing thought was that these communications were completely secure, until another main character melted down several of the crystals (from machines who's partner had been destroyed) and created a tunable crystal which allowed them to write to multiple different other machines.

I also recall that the book ended with a meteor being summoned (again, using alchemy) to hit a major city, only for that to be prevented by the main characters.

This was, I believe, the first book in a series. I cannot recall if the series was aimed at adults or teens though.

  • Does it start with a trip to Mars in 1779? – FuzzyBoots Sep 26 '17 at 16:01
  • @FuzzyBoots I don't recall if that is the case, honestly. – Jeff Sep 26 '17 at 16:45
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    That was a false start, with me thinking I'd found it with The Daedalus Incident which is also about a world where alchemy replaced science. But I am almost certain you're thinking of the Age of Unreason series as in my answer below. – FuzzyBoots Sep 26 '17 at 16:48

You're thinking of the Age of Unreason series by J. Gregory Keyes.

The first book is Newton's Cannon:

A dazzling quest whose outcome will raise humanity to unparalleled heights of glory--or ring down a curtain of endless night . . .

1681: When Sir Isaac Newton turns his restless mind to the ancient art of alchemy, he unleashes Philosopher's Mercury, a primal source of matter and a key to manipulating the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Now, as France and England battle for its control, Louis XIV calls for a new weapon--a mysterious device known only as Newton's Cannon.

Half a world away, a young apprentice named Benjamin Franklin stumbles across a dangerous secret. Pursued by a deadly enemy--half scientist, half sorcerer--Ben makes his fugitive way to England. Only Newton himself can help him now. But who will help Sir Isaac? For he was not the first to unleash the Philosopher's Mercury. Others were there before him. Creatures as scornful of science as they are of mankind. And burning to be rid of both . . .

The "fax machine" shows up in that book, the "aether-schreiber", as per this review:

In our own timeline, Newton did turn his mind to the study of alchemy and magic after completing his famous investigations on physics, but reached only a dead end. In Keyes' alternate world, Newton discovers a substance called the "philosopher's mercury" and stands the world on its head. Within a few decades, applications have been made in all fields, producing analogs of twentieth-century technology in the dawn of the eighteenth century. Terrible weapons boil blood and turn castle walls into crystal in a renewed war between England and France, while devices known as aether-schreibers enable people to communicate instantly over vast distances.

However the aether-schreiber has a limitation -- it works only in pairs. At the heart of each device is a bit of glass known as a chime, which is the separated twin of the device to which it is mated (to make the two chimes, one cuts in half a single piece of this special glass). Because of this, a group of scientists working on a secret super-weapon for King Louis XIV rely upon them for secure communications with colleagues working in various countries.(One major plotline deals with a brilliant young woman who is denied the ability to fully use her mathematical ability simply because she is a woman, and how she becomes involved with intrigues around Louis XIV in her endless quest for intellectual sustenance).

However a young Boston printer's apprentice named Benjamin Franklin, as a part of a money-making scheme for his brother, seeks a way to create a tunable aether-schreiber. In the course of his experiments he attracts the wrath of the mysterious Trevor Bracewell, who tells him to experiment no more. Yet Ben's insatiable curiosity drives him to discover the secret of tuning an aether-schreiber, and in doing so he stumbles upon some curious mathematical correspondence. He offers some solutions to the correspondents' problems, and only afterward does he realize that he should not have assumed that the writers were English simply because they wrote in that language. When Bracewell returns to murder him and instead murders his brother, Ben realizes that he may well have inadvertantly aided the enemies of England. He then flees Boston and heads for London, where he seeks out Newton and his following in a desperate effort to discover the true secret of "Newton's Cannon" before it is too late.

The "Jesus Shoes" show up in the second book, A Calculus of Angels.

People were staring and shouting from the shore as well as if they had never seen a man skating upon the Moldau before. But perhaps they had not, he thought smugly. Not when it wasn't frozen.

Grinning, he pushed on, still marveling at the way his shoes pressed against the flowing water without touching it, like two magnets with like poles shoved together. He turned back upstream, laughing at the peculiar resistance, Katarina and her father already forgotten, sliding two steps forward but nevertheless moving back with the vaster sweep of the current. Turning again, he lost his balance and teetered precariously on one foot, arms windmilling, but he did not fall. He knew all about falling from practice the day before: The shoes stayed out of the water, making it hard to get his head up; the only solution was to take them off, a clumsy business.


Robert lifted his wooden tankard. "To your new invention, the Jesus shoes!" he pronounced.
"Hush, you butterhead!" Ben said, nearly choking on his drink. "Now who's being incautious around the Romish?"
Robert grinned and took a gulp of his beer. "An eagle abroad but an owl at home," he quoted.
"So what do you call those things?" He gestured vaguely beneath the table.
"Aquapeds," Ben replied.
"Of course. Nothing is scientifical unless you name it in the Latin," Robert remarked, a bit mockingly.

The bit with the meteor looks to have happened at the end of the book. It's referenced once in the second book:

Ben fidgeted. He and Newton had not explained what had really happened two years before: that the meteor had been intentionally summoned, not by God, but by men.
The prince laughed at Ben's expression, perhaps mistaking it for an intense effort to address is argument. "Who can know how God works? Certainly not I. I am no theologian."
"Do you wish for Sir Isaac and me to cease our experiments?"

And Goodreads mentions it in the summary:

1722: A second Dark Age looms. An asteroid has devastated the Earth, called down by dire creatures who plot against the world of men. The brilliant-- some say mad--Isaac Newton has taken refuge in ancient Prague. There, with his young apprentice Ben Franklin, he plumbs the secrets of the aetheric beings who have so nearly destroyed humanity.

I found the book searching with a string of science fiction book alchemy "jesus shoes" -"sweet tea" (There's a book named Jesus Shoes and Sweet Tea that kept confounding my results) and near the bottom was an EText at a Russian pirate site which provided the correct quote.

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  • This may be it! I'll see if my local library has a copy, so I can confirm. – Jeff Sep 26 '17 at 16:48
  • Your additional quotes have convinced me - this is, indeed, the series. Oddly, I hadn't realized that I seemed to have read the 2nd book, though I distinctly recall reading about the Jesus Shoes. – Jeff Sep 26 '17 at 18:26

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