Summer is over, but no one says we need to back away from the escapist fiction! There’s no shame in losing yourself between the covers of a good book. Just don’t confuse this kind of escape with the chick lit, mysteries and thrillers you were reading on the beach. Save those for next year’s daiquiri. Instead, we advise walking proudly into the Sci-Fi / Fantasy aisle of your local bookshop. Shove past the pallid guy with the stack of Forgotten Realms paperbacks and the teenage girls with dark circles under their eyes surrounding the Twilight feature table. Hold your head high! We’re about to let you in on a little secret. You see, there are fantasy novels and then there are Fantasy novels.
In the latter category are Alice in Wonderland, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Harry Potter, Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. Books so cleverly conceived and brilliantly written that they can be enjoyed by both adults and children alike. Their authors don’t tell stories, they create worlds. Worlds that are intriguing, exciting, and a little bit frightening. Unfortunately, everyone has read those stories (or should have). You’re looking for something a little more BookSexy, a little more cutting edge – a book that hasn’t gone viral…at least not yet.
Enter Walter Moers’ Zamonia novels, published by The Overlook Press. Moers is a German author and cartoonist who has had five books translated into English (four of which are set in Zamonia). The most recent being The Alchemaster’s Apprentice. These books can be read in any order, so don’t worry about starting with the newest book first. What Moers has done is set about exploring Zamonia – so while characters may make cameos in eachothers’ stories, this is not a chronologically told tale. You will not be following the continuing saga of one single character or event through a series of books. Instead, with each story the reader is allowed to pop in and out of different sections and cities of Zamonia. You learn about Wolpertings and Crats, Lindworms and Blue Bears, Shark Grubs and more. You’ll visit Bookholm, the Netherworld and, in this newest adventure, Malaisea.
Picture to yourself the sickest place in the whole of Zamonia! A little town with winding streets and crooked houses, and looming over it a creepy-looking castle perched on a black crag. A town afflicted by the rarest bacteria and the oddest diseases: cerebral whooping cough, hepatic migraine, gastric mumps, intestinal acne, digital tinnitus, renal measles, mini-influenza, to which only persons less than one metre tall are susceptible, witching-hour headaches that develop on the stroke of midnight and disappear at one a.m. precisely on the first Thursday of every month, phantom toothaches experienced only by persons wearing a full set of dentures.
Picture a town where there are more apothecaries and herbalists, quacks and tooth-pullers, crutch manufacturers and bandage weavers than anywhere else on the Zamonian continent. Where ‘Ouch!’ is the conventional form of greeting and ‘Get well soon!’ takes the place of ‘Goodbye’. Where the air smells of ether and pus, cod-liver oil and emetics, iodine and putrefaction. Where people vegetate and wheeze instead of living and breathing. Where nobody laughs, just moans and groans.
And the cause of all this sickness is Ghoolion the Terrible, the Alchemaster of the book’s title and resident of the creepy-looking castle.
Echo, a Crat (looks like a cat, but can speak any language and has two livers), is our hero. After his mistress’ death he is left to starve on the streets of Malaisea. Ghoolion finds Echo and offers him a Faustian bargain. Until the full moon he will feed Echo the most delicious foods the Crat has ever eaten and teach Echo all his alchemical secrets. Then, at month’s end, Ghoolion will render Echo down for his fat to use in experiments (Crat fat being extremely rare). Seeing no other option other than starvation, Echo agrees.
Moers is not only an inventive writer, he is also a very funny one. As the story progresses, Ghoolion (not without a certain charisma) and Echo form a demented odd couple. The Alchemaster more than keeps to his part of the bargain – and the two main characters seem to develop a mutual respect which borders on friendship. Their interactions, even moreso than Echo’s quest to break his contract, really propel the plot forward. (In fact, if it wasn’t for the whole killing the Crat for his fat and torturing the citizens of Malaisea with fear and disease – we’d be rooting for team Ghoolian).
The subtitle of The Alchemaster’s Apprentice is A Culinary Tale from Zamonia – and the Zamonian delicacies Ghoolion prepares for Echo are an important (as well as entertaining) element of the story.
My dear Echo,
I regret my inability to offer you a particularly lavish breakfast this morning, as I will be engaged on a research project all day. However, the honey on the bread is very special. It’s made by the Demonic Bees of Honey Valley.
Don’t worry about the dead bees in it, they’ve had their stings removed and they make the honey nice and crunchy. But be sure to chew with care. It sometimes happens, though very rarely, that one of the bees has not had its sting removed. Although a prick in the gum or tongue wouldn’t kill you, it would certainly give you an unpleasant time. The risk factor is said to be part of the enjoyment one derives from eating a slice of bee-bread.
‘Well, well,’ Echo thought sleepily, ‘Demonic Bees from Honey Valley. Whatever. After last night I’d eat a grilled Sewer Dragon, with or without it’s knilch.’ He hurriedly devoured a few morsels and took a swig of milk. The milk tasted odd – soapy, somehow – so he wolfed another piece of bee-bread to take the taste away – and instantly felt a stabbing pain in his tongue.
‘Ouch!’ he said, but that was as far as he got. The room began to revolve, alternately bathed in light and darkness, and he went plummeting down a black-and-white shaft that spiraled into the depths, losing consciousness on the way.
When Echo came to, he seemed to be looking into a shattered mirror that reflected many little fragments of the world around him…
(What comes next is one of the funniest scenes in the book, but we won’t ruin it for you).
The Alchemaster’s Apprentice is a story that you lose yourself in – the very definition of escapist literature. It has a cast of supporting characters and settings – all examples of Zamonian flora and fauna – that will fascinate and enchant you. And when you finish, we promise you’ll want to get the rest of the series: Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures; The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Blue Bear, and The City of Dreaming Books. You can pass them on to your friends or just wait for them to discover the books themselves. “Oh… Moers? Sweetie, I was reading him back in 2009. The movie just isn’t as good…”
Suggestions: The Zamonia novels are perfect to share with the little people in your life. Whether as a bedtime story that won’t put you to sleep, or just to give you something to talk about on the car trip to the grandparents (nothing like discussing Leathermice philosophy with your favorite tween) – there’s something here for everyone. Including illustrations.