Expectations are a funny thing. For the sake of this analogy, consider Starbucks as an example. In my mind, speculative fiction, urban fantasy in particular, has been a lot like Starbucks. (I agree there are exceptions, of course, so untwist your chainmail BVDs.) A coffee purist might be quick to dismiss the ubiquitous coffee purveyor; bitter, over-roasted beans, calorie-laden menu, a macchiato that is anything but. However they have mastered two things: training the world to drop a five-spot on a cuppa joe, and meeting expectations. True, they might not be the platonic ideal of COFFEE, but it will be the same when you order it, whether you order it in downtown Seattle or the Great Wall of China. Likewise, it seems that urban fantasy has been largely made up of brooding loners, predominately Caucasian, confronting supernatural threats of a European nature — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Like Starbucks, it fills the need but rarely excites me for long.
Granted, it’s a tortured analogy.
So, Mr. Coffee Snob, what does this have to do with this review?
The Alchemists of Kush by Minister Faust is no Starbucks. In fact, it blew my expectations clean out of the water, so much so that I hesitate to call the novel speculative fiction at all! This, despite the fact that the bulk of the book is split between two parallel stories with 7,000 years separating them. In one set of alternating chapters, Faust tells us the story of Hru, a boy who survives the destruction of his village only to encounter the Swamp of Death and the forces of the mysterious, and aptly named Destroyer. In the other chapters, we get the story of Raphael “Supreme Raptor” Garang, also an refugee, now living with his mother in Edmonton, Canada, in a neighborhood that contains multiple transplanted African ethnic groups. Both young men get taken under the wing of a spiritual mentor who helps them find their own inner strength, transforming them metaphorically from lead to gold.
While the Book of the Then has all the hallmarks of fantasy, with magic and fantastic beasts, the Book of the Now could be straight up YA fiction with no fantastic elements at all. We fall even further from the folds of speculative fiction when it is suggested that the Book of Then is the basis for the spiritual teachings that the Supreme Raptor receives, acknowledging that story as metaphor and not literal truth. This begs the question, “What is the truth?” And more importantly, in matters of faith, is literal truth more important than the message being taught?
I’ve talked about the importance of faith elsewhere recently, so this idea was fresh in my mind as I read The Alchemists of Kush. And as the novel is, at it’s heart, about a spiritual awakening, it felt perfectly timed that I discovered the book when I did.
The twin stories and characters had me drawn in immediately, and it didn’t hurt that there was ample name dropping of favorite musical artists (Gil Scott-Heron among them) and comic book characters (Static and King Peacock). The narrative voice for each section was different enough as well that it helped sell the story within a story. I found myself so invested in the characters that when Supreme Raptor makes bad decisions, I found myself wincing in empathy. And thank you, Mr. Faust for giving us heroes that are real enough that they make bad decisions and have to learn from them.
In fact, without a traditional antagonist in the contemporary timeline (I know, no villain in an urban fantasy? Heresy! Glorious, glorious heresy!), the Supreme Raptor sometimes pulls double duty as his own worst enemy. And while some problems are solved with violence, it is rarely the easy solution it appears to be. More often than not, a calm head needs to prevail, and problems need to be solved with words and hard work to back them up.
That alone would make for a compelling reason to read The Alchemist of Kush, but it’s by no means the only reason. The characters are rich, their battles hard fought and heartbreaking. And the resulting affirmation of love, community, pride, responsibility, and family makes this the caliber of book I would love to see as required reading at the high-school level.
Final verdict, highly recommended.
Right now this is only available in e-book formats, and a huge value at only $2.99 at time of review. I suggest picking it up, and if you live in the Seattle area, Minister Faust will be giving a reading on July 12th at the University Bookstore at 7pm.