The Alchemaster's Apprentice by Walter Moers
|The Alchemaster's Apprentice by Walter Moers
|Reviewer: John Lloyd
|Summary: A further example of this author's singular, stylish, alternative fantasy, as a young creature signs his life away for a last month with a weird scientist.
|Date: October 2009
|Publisher: Harvill Secker
Meet Echo the Crat. He is a rare example of his species, which is a cat that can speak every language known. His life among the miserable, permanently ill citizens of Malaisea is not great, which is why, when the strange scientist from the castle that looms over everyone and everything offers him a month of entertaining gluttony before he kills Echo, as opposed to three days' starving penury on the streets, the offer is accepted.
Hence a month for Echo to explore the castle with its copious shadowy corners, secretive inhabitants, and more. It's debatable however, which is the more mysterious - the castle or its owner, Ghoolion the alchemist. Still, time must come for Echo for him to begin to wonder what he can do about the contract hanging over him. That's when his travails really begin...
I have never successfully put my finger on what makes Moers books so enjoyable. They're dressed up as general fiction, but are clearly fantasy. They're always designed as adult fiction, but anyone with the wrist-strength to hold them will get a lot out of them - certainly the author's own charmingly ugly-pretty illustrations make them child-friendly. The thing I'm always left asking myself, however, is if these are books for grown-ups, why do they have no great further depth?
This follows the pattern familiar to Moers fans of old - another strange, young-seeming hero in a world of wonder, full of unexpected creatures, history, fates and more that add up to some of the most completely realised worlds in fantasy. From the off we get flash-backs to previous books, with editor's notes when creatures we might have a prior history of have been mentioned. There are short stories galore hidden here, as usual - I particularly liked the one in the vineyard - but we hardly ever get a moral or anything from them, just pleasure.
These books serve as an alternative to regular fantasy, inasmuch as they disregard the usual quest pattern, shrug off many of the creatures we might expect (although trolls, dragons and dwarvish people are in here to a fashion), and give us the experience of the immature among marvels. It might be an alternative that still does not gel with many, but for me they're top notch.
It's just that when you first meet a Moers you might well be wondering what the point is. I am sure in some world there could be a huge extended metaphor in the plot, a grand hidden theme behind all the crafty cleverness. But here there isn't. I don't want to condemn these as shallow, or lacking in anything crucial, so when I say these are just entertainment, it should not be taken as a criticism - they are entertainment of highest order. There's a reason for the author's alter ego being called Optimus Yarnspinner, after all.
I could have filled this review with quotes, mentioning copious examples of the new creatures we meet here, the gloriously mad recipes Echo is served with, and the brilliant dialogue a cyclopean owl gives us, who takes the Spoonerism and runs with it. (His word play, and the typical pun-styled creature names show once again how brilliantly these must have been translated by John Brownjohn.) Zen squirrels popping up courtesy of Cogitating Eggs, the truth behind the species Ghoolion is employed to suppress, and a hero that hilariously gets fatter and has to add a diet plan to his one for escape - there is a host of glories to be discovered.
This only loses out on account of my regular search for an elusive depth that could spring up - it wouldn't be beyond this author, I'm sure, based on his talents in this and other fields (he's also one of Germany's top political cartoonists), and the fact that this does not hang together quite as coherently as The City of Dreaming Books, with it's even greater absorption into a strange world being so concentrated on antiquated bibliophiles.
This still is a consistently engaging flirt with the more enjoyably bizarre fantasy, and whether your first or fourth Moers read, one to make the open-minded very pleased indeed.
I must thank Harvill Secker for my review copy.
The closest I have found to Moers among English-language fantasy is the trilogy beginning with Mirrorscape by Mike Wilks.
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You can read more book reviews or buy The Alchemaster's Apprentice by Walter Moers at Amazon.com.
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