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.