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The Alchemists of Kush Paperback – April 11, 2017
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This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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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?
The importance of faith has been fresh in my mind recently. And as the novel is, at it's heart, about a spiritual awakening, it felt perfectly timed that I discovered the Alchemist of Kush 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 with 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 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.
Yes, I said "hearing." Because you don't read this book; you hear it. You absorb it, and you learn it.
Minister Faust writes with impeccable rhythm and percussive language, describing each scene on a bassbeat of emotion. His words move like a camera through a movie scene, showing you what's most important and leaving out the chaff, the moment-to-moment detritus of the writer's craft that tend to only gum up the works. The author could have written this book on a turntable as easily as a keyboard, and the message would have been just as clear.
The book's two "movements" (The Book of Then and the Book of Now) are brothers, holding each other in high regard, informing and referring to each other in turn. Just as you start to feel that Now is reflecting Then, something happens in the Now that is later reflected in the Then. Minister Faust's foreword suggests that you could read the two books separately, back to back, but the way it's published, with Now interspersed with Then, seems pure and true, with Then laying a spiritual foundation for the events, decisions, and lessons of Now.
Minister Faust's characters are rich, stubborn, and complex, and he does a fantastic job of relaying the life within a Black society on the edge of Edmonton, Alberta. The conflicts, beliefs, culture, and fears are richly communicated with imagery and action, and reflected against the backdrop of a violent myth of slavery, escape, murder, and transformation, the trials of main character Rap/Raptor, his mentor Brother Moon, and his best friend JC/Jackal, come across as truth. Minister Faust revels in culture and educates about ways of life without pointing fingers or excluding readers who were raised outside of Kush (both the Black enclave of northern Edmonton and the location in Africa where the Book of Then takes place). His characters are Somali, Sudanese, Jamaican, Canadian, African, human.
The Alchemists of Kush teaches without preaching, as the protagonists learn alongside the reader how to transmute the lead of modern society into the gold of enlightened wisdom. It does so in a pulsing, thundering, and yet gentle and charming way, showing the horrifying dangers of the world of lead and the shocking calm of a heart of gold. It's not always fun to read, with its necessary scenes of brutality and violence, but it's always worth reading.