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Literature / The Alchemaster's Apprentice

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"A culinary ignoramus would have spat out a Sewer Dragon's knilch at once. It tastes extraordinary — like nothing else. Ordinary folk prefer familiar tastes — they'd sooner eat the same things all the time — but a gourmet would sample a fried park bench just to know how it tastes. It's the same with the alchemist: nothing strange, novel or surprising can deter him. On the contrary, he goes looking for such things. Are you ready for the next course?"

The Alchemaster's Apprentice is a fantasy novel by German author Walter Moers, and the fifth book that takes place on the fictional continent of Zamonia (the previous four being The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, Ensel and Krete, Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures and The City of Dreaming Books).

The story follows Echo, a Crat (which is basically a normal housecat, except for the facts that it can talk and has two livers) who, after his kindly owner dies, finds himself homeless and living on the streets in Malaisea, the sickest and unhealthiest town in all of Zamonia.

The main reason for Malaisea's ailments is Ghoolion, the town's chief alchemist, who one day chances to meet Echo and makes him the following offer: He will provide food, lodgings, entertainment and anything Echo's heart might desire for one month's time — after which he will kill him for his fat, which is a rare and potent alchemical ingredient. Driven by starvation, Echo reluctantly agrees to the bargain.

Over the course of the month, a sort of weird friendship grows between the two, and while Echo is provided with all kinds of gourmet foods and every imaginable comfort, he tries to find a way to get out of the bargain so he won't have to die after all. Along the way, he makes many discoveries and learns many secrets, and even makes a few new friends, such as Theodore T. Theodore, the Tuwituwu (a one-eyed owl) and Izanuela, the last Uggly in Malaisea.

The book provides examples of:

  • Arc Words: "Nobody understands the Leathermice!" Not, as it turns out, even the Leathermice themselves.
  • Author Appeal: In-universe. From The City of Dreaming Books, we know that Optimus Yarnspinner loves his food, is a hypochondriac, and was once helped by a well-meaning if creepy Uggly. All these things are reflected in this book.
  • Burn the Witch!: Ghoolion would love to do this to all Ugglies (witches), even though it's currently illegal. Instead he uses his position as the city's Alchemaster to make it almost impossible for them to work their magic in Malaisea. The last one left, Izanuela, only stays because she now has a monopoly on healing potions.
  • Cats Are Mean: Well, not mean so much as lacking in empathy. Though a friendly and amiable creature for the most part, Echo has his moments of cruelty.
  • Disney Death: A particularly shocking one comes when Echo, about halfway through the book, is led to believe that he's just ate his friend Theodore T. Theodore. Lucky that the wild fowl Ghoolion served him wasn't Theodore after all, but neither Echo nor the reader find out that Theodore is still alive until the very end of the story, where he re-enters the narrative just in time to play Deus ex Machina.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Echo.
    "I'm very partial to black humor, so you're welcome to poke fun at a poor little Crat with one paw in the grave. However, please forgive me for not laughing at this particular moment. The laugh stuck in my throat and I was so hungry I swallowed it."
  • Faux Affably Evil: Ghoolion swings between this and Affably Evil; he's genuinely charming, but it's impossible to tell how much of it is an act to manipulate Echo and how much of it is heartfelt.
  • Food Porn:
    • Ghoolion is an impossibly good cook, and even if some of the food sounds weird to us non-gourmets, it's lovingly described and the taste sensations meticulously detailed.
    • In the afterword, Optimus Yarnspinner calls the story a "culinary tale," and it's not hard to see why.
  • Forced Transformation: Happens to Echo a couple of times as the result of some of Ghoolion's more "special" meals. During these scenes he also experiences The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body, as he quickly begins thinking like the creatures he's transformed into.
  • Impossible Shadow Puppets: Ghoolion has to contort his hands to create a convincing Nurn shadow.
  • Living Shadow: The shadow puppets created by Ghoolion eventually attack each other and Echo.
  • Lost in Translation: Many puns; for example the name of the Leathermice. The German term is "Ledermaus", which means the same while also being a pun on "Fledermaus", the German word for bats.
  • Love Potion: Izanuela makes one for Ghoolion, to make him fall in love with her. Too bad he's not only completely immune to it, but was perfectly aware of what she was doing all along.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: The reason Ghoolion has tortured and killed so many animals for his experiments is that he plans to resurrect his dead love.
  • More than Mind Control: Echo is subjected to a variant of this, partly through what appears to be a Magically-Binding Contract, and partly through Ghoolion's expert manipulations of him — which is why he doesn't flee from the Alchemaster despite having many opportunities and even making several attempts: he just can't bring himself to go through with it, even if he knows perfectly well that staying means death.
  • Mother Nature, Father Science: Izanuela and Ghoolion, respectively, though Ghoolion's "science" is quite perverted. Nature proves stronger in the end; even after he kills her, her trees attack the laboratory in revenge.
  • Omniglot: Crats can understand and speak any language, and as such communicate effortlessly with any living creature. Echo makes good use of the ability.
  • Our Witches Are Different: They are called "Ugglies", Schrecksen in German, and seem to be a One-Gender Race.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Izanuela, even though she's described as downright hideous, puts so much effort into her love potion, perfume and flower gown, and is so excited to marry Ghoolion, that she becomes almost beautiful.
  • Shout-Out: An illustration of Ghoolion early in the book references Nosferatu and the eponymous vampire's iconic hat.
  • The Owl-Knowing One: Theodore T. Theodore, who serves as The Mentor to Echo in the first half of the book.
  • Planet of Steves: All the Leathermice are named Vlad. Echo makes the mistake of asking them what he should call them, and then has to sit through the introductions of Vlad the First through Vlad the Two Thousand Four Hundred and Thirty-Eighth.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: The plot of Alchemaster's Apprentice is overtly taken from the novella Mirror, the Kitten by 19th century novelist Gottfried Keller, where the story's setting is late-medieval Switzerland.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Izanuela, who is terrified of heights, has to climb a roof in order to get a rare plant for her love potion.