The Alchemists’ Council by Cynthea Masson
As the first installment in a planned trilogy by Cynthea Masson, The Alchemists’ Council faces difficult challenges in setting up a world which is both familiar and foreign, introducing characters and their motivations, and resolving enough plot to satisfy readers while teasing them with more to come. Masson’s prose is dense with details and striking imagery, and her characters are compelling, though the plot occasionally falters under the weight of the world-building.
The Alchemists’ Council exists in a neighboring dimension to our own and is populated by no more than one hundred members who are ruled by an Azoth Magen, typically an elderly member who offers wisdom and guidance to both the Council as a whole and as needed by individual members. They preserve a massive library and use alchemical methods to extend their lives far beyond what a normal human could achieve; alchemists also watch over Earth, making adjustments here and there in order to maintain an elemental balance which serves their various needs. From time to time, their numbers must be bolstered, so unique people are given the opportunity to shed their normal lives and cross between dimensions.
Jaden is one such person: newly initiated into the Council, she remembers nearly nothing of her previous life, including her former name. She is placed in a learning group with other low-ranking members — Cercis, Laurel, and Arjun — and given the difficult task of determining why bees are disappearing from illuminated alchemical manuscripts as well as from the Earth. Meanwhile, Council elders Sadira and Cedar are struggling with their own altered memories in an attempt to learn more about the Rebel Branch which thwarts the Council’s goal of perfection. I enjoyed seeing the same conflicts from multiple points of view, particularly because Masson plays with the reader’s expectations, and makes it plain that even a tyrant can have altruistic motivations. There are no Good Guys or Bad Guys in The Alchemists’ Council; there are a lot of questions about who can be trusted and why, and not many easy answers.
By necessity, Masson includes a lot of background information with regards to the hierarchy of the Council, its methods over the centuries, and political intrigue among the members, some of whom cultivate friendships or grudges for centuries. There are a lot of details to establish in the reader’s mind in order to prepare for the drama and conflicts in coming novels, which often resulted in characters stopping to reminisce for several paragraphs, interrupting the flow of dialogue or plot in favor of history lessons or nursing old wounds. The chapters themselves jump back and forth through time, as well, so it can sometimes be difficult to keep in mind when and where the current narrative lies.
The Alchemists’ Council would have benefited from more clarity concerning the goals of the Rebel Branch and why the Council hates and fears them, in order to better convey Jaden’s turmoil over potentially allying herself with the rebels, and to help explain why long-standing members of the Council take certain actions. Now that much of the groundwork has been laid down, my hope is that subsequent books will be more plot-driven, so that Masson’s characters have more room to shine.
I love what you’ve described of this world! Looking forward to reading it and the subsequent books. Thanks, Jana!
Thanks, Marion! I think you’d like this one. :)
sounds intriguing. Plus, I’m pretty much a sucker for anything with the word or concept of alchemy involved. In fact, that was one of our finalists for names if our child was a girl
The bits of alchemy in the novel were really, really intriguing, and left me wanting a lot more. Fingers crossed for the next novel!
And what a cool idea for a girl’s name!
Thanks for the review, Jana! Yes, building a world on the intricate concepts of medieval alchemy did indeed require the provision of a lot of background material in the first few chapters. Transforming those complexities into fiction was the most challenging aspect of writing Book One.
As to the alchemists vs. the rebels, for me the main conflict of the novel revolves around opposing philosophies regarding free will and power. Since the era of the “primordial myth” with which the book opens, the Alchemists’ Council and the Rebel Branch have been at war. Thus the conflict is as ancient as the dimensions themselves rather than based in particular memories that any living alchemist or rebel may have. The goal of the Alchemists’ Council is to remove the Flaw in the Stone, whereas the goal of the Rebel Branch is to increase it. The Flaw in the Stone is what permits free will. If the Flaw were to be removed completely, the Council believes everyone would be saved in the dimensional equivalent of a unified afterlife. The Rebel Branch, on the other hand, wants to maintain their current existence as individuals with choice (rather than being forced into a collective “One” by the alchemists). This main conflict is explored through a variety of lenses throughout the book. Since I teach medieval literature, much of my inspiration for these conflicts came from philosophical debates on free will found in works such as Book IV of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.
As with these sorts of issues in our actual world, no one position is necessarily correct, so I really appreciated that you said, “There are no Good Guys or Bad Guys.” The tentative title for Book Two is “The Flaw in the Stone”; therefore, you will see much more of the Rebel Branch then. Still, as with Book One, the plot of Book Two will remain focused on philosophical debate/conflict among characters rather than dramatic battles or quests. I hope to find an enthusiastic audience who will continue along these philosophical paths with me!
I would love to have folk drop by my blog at https://cyntheamasson.com/. In particular, you and other readers might want to check out the link on my menu called “Graybosch & Higby Readings”–these two men are doing a chapter by chapter analysis over the next several weeks.
Thanks again for your interest in the book and for taking the time to write a review!
Thanks very much for the feedback and the link, Ms. Masson! I hope our readers find them as useful as I did. :)