The Alchemists’ Council by Cynthea Masson
Reviewed by Matthew Rettino
The Alchemists’ Council. ECW Press, 2016.
In recent years fantasy fiction in Canada and the United States has served as a powerful forum for the discussion of environmental ethics and ecocriticism. Michael J. DeLuca and Kelly Link devoted the July 2015 issue of the American speculative fiction magazine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet to the ecological crisis. Recent Canadian publications expressly devoted to environmental issues include books such as the fantasy anthology Urban Green Man: An Archetype of Renewal (EDGE, 2013) and The Alchemists’ Council, the second fantasy novel by B.C. author Cynthea Masson, the first in a projected trilogy. Masson uses her academic expertise in medieval manuscripts to create a convincing fantastic world in which the disappearance of bees from alchemical texts threatens ecological sustainability.
Jaden is the newest initiate to Alchemists’ Council and has been selected to live in the immortal world of Council dimension, studying the ways of alchemy. Ever since the Crystalline Wars, the Alchemists’ Council has struggled to keep the Lapis—commonly known as the ‘philosopher’s stone’—in balance with the Flaw in the Lapis. The harmony of the Lapis determines the sustainability of the ordinary world. However, to alter reality through alchemy, the Council’s scribes must violate the free will of mortals. Obeche, a prominent Council member, frames the power dynamic starkly: “How free is the will of the people of the outside world if, with a few strokes of that same ink, entire populations—the entire population—could be eliminated entirely at the whim of the Alchemists’ Council?” (338) The Alchemists’ Council holds this power as it approaches a crisis.
Soon the dangerous Rebel Branch, which derives its power from the Flaw, draws Jaden into its war against the totalitarian Council. To unravel the conspiracy she must discover the true reason that the Rebel Branch is erasing pictures of bees from Lapidarian manuscripts. The vibration of Lapidarian bees’ wings creates energy waves that hinder humanity’s willpower, causing its enslavement: “The more bees, the stronger the vibration, the weaker the will” (350). Although the connection between bees and free will seems farfetched, Masson treats this feature of her world with internal consistency and uses it inquire into humanity’s relationship with its environment.
Currently an English professor at Vancouver Island University, Masson has herself worked with alchemical manuscripts in the British Library. Her essay published in Intersections of Sexuality and the Divine (Ashgate, 2005), “Queer Copulation and the Pursuit of Divine Conjunction in Two Middle English Alchemical Poems,” examines a ritual called conjunction, a concept explored in her novel. In light of her research into medieval mysticism and manuscript culture, The Alchemists’ Council becomes a novel about manuscript conservation just as much as it is about environmental conservation. In fact, for the Alchemists’ Council, the preservation of manuscripts is the preservation of the environment.
Masson’s novel poses its central dilemma: the Council needs to dominate humanity so it can bring order to the world on humanity’s behalf; on the other hand, the Rebel Branch promises an ambiguous gift of freedom that lets people be “free to choose, free to reap the consequences of their choices, free to destroy or save themselves” (351). Jaden’s choice to join either side raises ethical questions to which there are no clear, reassuring answers. Should the educated elite and the government deal with matters of environmental justice for the populace, or does responsibility lie with the individual citizen? This is a question for a contemporary world in which trusting in authority can be problematic. Institutions such as the police state (or in Jaden’s case, the Council) violate human freedom in the name of security, while constant surveillance directed against terrorist activity develops an infrastructure of social domination. How can a human subject negotiate these levels of power to build a more sustainable, liveable environment, not just in nature but in society?
Obeche, spearheading the struggle against the Rebel Branch, comes to represent the potential for repressive power in the Council: “his paranoia regarding Rebel Branch activity had all too often led to accusations, followed swiftly by meetings, investigations, and trials that proved, in all but a few cases, to be completely unnecessary” (159). The onus for change rests on Jaden’s shoulders, as it lay upon any individual who speaks out against ecological injustice. In Masson’s world, alchemy functions as a metaphor for sustainability. Her contribution to ecocritical fantasy resides in this call to take responsibility for the mistakes of the past and create a sustainable future, despite evident resistance to environmental reform.