The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers

Walter Moers is a German writer and artist. In 1999 the first of the Zamonia series was published in Germany, The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, and was translated into English in 2000 for the UK and 2005 for America. It was an international bestseller (though it has retained some obscurity in the US.)

The Alchemaster’s Apprentice is the fifth book in the Zamonia series and is, like the rest of the series, illustrated throughout by Moers himself ( a talented artist with roots in German comics.) Their cartoonish appearance belies the fact that his books are for a more mature audience and it are filled with puns and references that an adolescent reader may not understand, but could still enjoy.

Zamonia is a fantasy land that instantly reminds me of Discworld or Hogwarts. Demons and witches and monsters and magic and violence are an accepted part of day-to-day living. It is tongue-in-cheek, very much like Pratchett’s works, but the humour is usually a bit more subdued (with some hilarious exceptions.)

The town of Malaisea (because it is so over-whelmed with poxes and sicknesses,) is ruled by the evil Alchemaster, Ghoolion, who uses potions and chemicals to create plagues and demons to harass and control the townsfolk. The story revolves around  our Hero, Echo. He is a crat – which is an animal almost identical to a cat, except it has two livers, can speak every language and has a perfect memory. Ghoolion finds him on the street, starving and near death. The Alchemaster makes a deal with Echo – he will cook for the crat and treat him to a life of luxury in return for the right to slaughter him and extract his fat and essence for his alchemical practises.

Echo, with nothing to lose, accepts the deal. He’s going to die anyway, he figures, so it might as well be in comfort rather than in hungry agony on the street. And thus the story follows the adventures of the crat in the decrepit castle of the Alchemaster.

The story follows the two characters as they develop a relationship each other and become valued friends. But this is of course, an awkward relationship because it will still culminate in Echo’s death. Echo discovers magic, strange creatures, has mystical and spiritual adventures and learns Ghoolions’ darkest deepest secrets. The Alchemaster, it turns out, is an amazing chef. Every day he creates culinary delights for the crat – sating and saturating him, priming his body for the harvest. This is the heart of the book – ingredient collecting, cooking and feasting – it is fantasy food-porn that elevates the experience of eating so high that it is almost worshipped: it’s like reading a transcript for Gordon Ramsey if he were cheffing for the staff at Hogwarts.

The story is very entertaining, from start to end. It is a journey of discovery for both the characters and the readers, who get to discover the land of Malaisea as intimately as the characters get to know each other. There are many genuinely touching moments and there is also much suspense – in essence this is a story of racing against the clock.

Moers shows us his delight in creating fantastical elements with long lists of ingredients. Many many long lists. In fact, the only downside in this book is probably how repetitive it can be with the characters listing things. It becomes boring and an effort to read through on some occasions.

“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 inflicted with 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.”

The opening paragraph is long but also adequately prepares you for the rest of the book. It sets the scene and setting wonderfully, and new comers to the franchise can read it as a stand-alone book, or fans can read it and delight in an expansion of a world they already love. It is a wonderfully entertaining read and it deserves it’s bestseller status. I look forward to discovering more books by Moers.

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