I found thinking about Walter Moers’ The Alchemaster’s Apprentice hard, and not very rewarding, work.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, exactly: it was fine, and occasionally quite entertaining. It’s more that it did a few quite interesting things which failed to go anywhere.
Take, for instance, the first line of the novel:
Picture to yourself the sickest place in the whole of Zamonia.
This is an instruction that’s impossible to follow. First: where is Zamonia? (Readers of Moers’ other books will know the answer to this, but The Alchemaster’s Apprentice plainly doesn’t expect you to be such a reader.) Secondly: what does Moers mean by “sickest”? Cruellest? Best? Most disease-ridden? It’s a sentence that destabilises the author/reader relationship from the start; it unsettles us, it invites us in.
The sickest place in the whole of Zamonia, it turns out, is Malaisea. Everyone is ill in Malaisea, with all manner of exciting diseases ranging from the common cold to tuberculosis. This is the doing of the town’s resident alchemist, the titular Alchemaster, Ghoolion, who creates noxious fumes in his noxious castle above the town to oppress the people of Malaisea.
The story follows Echo, a talking cat. His owner has recently died, and he’s close to death from starvation, until Ghoolion offers him a terrible bargain: he’ll be fed the most luxurious meals for a month, at which point Ghoolion will murder him and use his fat in his alchemy.
Echo takes the bargain, goes to live in the creepy castle, and spends the rest of the novel trying to find a way out.
Now, Moers’ Zamonia is a place at once whimsical and dark. It has talking cats. But it also has Anguish Candles: candles that have been made (by Ghoolion) to experience terrible pain when they’re alight. And what use is a candle if it’s not alight? Ghoolion provides lakes of milk for Echo, but he also renders down rare and innocent creatures for their fats. Zamonia is a world that contains vampire bats called Leathermice and trees that can move and a city made entirely of iron and steel.
The novel’s full of lively pen and ink illustrations by the author which contribute quite a lot to how this world feels: just familiar enough that the whimsy destabilises us, pulls the rug out from under our feet. It’s also full of plot reversals: the characters tell stories within stories in which star-crossed lovers are separated for ever, pointlessly, in which plucky underdogs are crushed by powerful monsters. Moers wants to keep us on our toes. He never gives us quite what we expect.
And yet. For all the work the novel is doing upfront to destabilise us, defamiliarise us, bring us to a place that’s cruel and unsettling, there doesn’t seem to be a coherent project underpinning all of this. There’s no point.
Well. There’s something of a theme about “the miracle of love”, but Moers’ “miracle of love” is…well. Everything that is wrong with Western conceptions of romance, for a start. There’s a grand total of two named female characters in The Alchemaster’s Apprentice, and both of them exist only to have pointless and doomed romances with Ghoolion, of all people. One of them tests his love for her by telling him she’s going to marry someone else, only to be heartbroken when he disappears off forever. The other is a witch who is Ghoolion’s literal opposite (she cultivates nature rather than destroying it) and whose people have been relentlessly persecuted by Ghoolion since the word go – only she finds his cruelty and complete disregard for other people’s feelings alluring rather than disgusting. She abandons her whole moral system because she’s in luuurve. And then she feeds the object of her affection a love potion to make him love her back.
So “the miracle of love” is beginning to look more like “the miracle of manipulative, not to say self-destructive, behaviour”. Which would be fine if I thought that that was Moers’ point, but the novel literally ends with Echo heading off to the mountains to seek out this miracle.
In other words, Moers is deploying all that destabilising potential, the talking cat, the darkly whimsical villain, the first line you cannot obey, the stories that end in unexpected tragedy, just to repeat old stereotypes. Which, I’m sorry, is just lazy storytelling. It makes for a novel that’s much less than the sum of its parts; a fantasy set in a secondary world that’s only superficially different from our own. And what’s the point of that, really?