Writing about fantasy fiction seems sooner or later to involve writing about myth. The two aren’t the same, but have a connection difficult to articulate. Similarities and contrasts both feel obvious and yet are hard to nail down. Perhaps it’s fair to say both fantasy and myth challenge consensus reality. But that they differ in the relation they have to truth, or to what is to be taken as truth.
Minister Faust is the pen name of Edmontonian Malcolm Azania. Faust is a novelist, as well as a journalist, radio host, activist, and former teacher. He’s written four novels; I want to write here a bit about his 2011 book The Alchemists of Kush. As I read it, it’s about a myth, both an exposition of that myth and an exploration of how the myth might be used in the contemporary world. How people can be affected by a story, and how a community can be created by the stories it tells itself. Mostly, though, I think the book’s about one person, and how he’s transformed — alchemised — by the story he finds.
Technically, the novel’s made up of three different books: ‘The Book of Now,’ ‘The Book of Then,’ and ‘The Book of the Golden Falcon.’ ‘The Book of the Golden Falcon,’ presented as a kind of appendix at the back of the novel, is divided into ten chapters and written in dense — mythic — langage which retells the story of Horus, Osiris, Anubis, and Set. Most of the novel consists of alternating chapters of ‘The Book of Then,’ which retells that story in a more novelistic (or, at least, less fable-like) style, and ‘The Book of Now,’ set in contemporary Edmonton, Alberta. ‘The Book of Now,’ by far the longest of the three books, tells the story of Rap, an Edmonton teen of Somali and Sudanese parentage, as he meets a society of adults who follow the moral and ethical lessons of ‘The Book of the Golden Falcon.’ Rap joins them and helps them to create a ‘golden fortress,’ a kind of organization of local youth, specifically Black youth. But as a community, the fortress faces a number of obstacles and enemies, just as Rap himself has to work out his own relationship to the community as it develops, and find his own path to maturity.
The mythos of ‘The Book of Then’ has some structural parallels in the plot of ‘The Book of Now,’ but not that many. Which makes sense; if the parallels were too clear, the characters would be seeing them too. Still, both stories feature a youth becoming a young man, his relationship with his best friend, and an older male mentor who helps both youths along their path. But mostly what ties the books together are symbolic parallels between the equivalent stages of the youth’s journey.
There’s not much stylistic difference between the Books of Now and Then, but the lack of variation works because the writing’s terse. There’s a convincing directness in both stories. Ideas are examined at length, but typically through vivid dialogues; characters don’t just explain, they expound, and somehow Faust seems to catch the energy that you find in a committed teacher communicating their love for their subject. As a whole, the book feels vaguely similar to Corey Doctorow’s Little Brother, another YA-to-adult book written by a Canadian about a young man struggling against an oppressive society, building a kind of counter-cultural society around him using social media that sometimes baffles his elders. But Kush is nevertheless quite different.
Before getting into details about the myth functions in the story, a note about its inspiration: Faust states (in an afterward to the book and in a video on his website) that The Alchemists of Kush is informed by the ideas of the Nation of Gods and Earths, sometimes called the Five Percenters. I know very little about them except what I’ve learned as a direct result of the book; Faust’s Alchemists seem similar in some ways and distinct in others. My impression is that Faust’s presenting similar ideas and practices with a different underlying mythological structure, one based in ancient Egyptian myth instead of Islam.
So: Faust’s Alchemists take the Book of the Golden Falcon as their foundational text. The story of the resurrection of Osiris is retold from the perspective of Hru, an orphaned child who is taken in by a wise man named Jehu (Thoth), makes an ally of his rival Yinapu (Anubis), finds out the truth of his parentage, and goes to war against the dark lord Set. In this version of the story, the wanderings of Isis are background, and the focus is on Jehu teaching Hru to build a golden fortress as a base for the struggle against Set. This telling of the story also contains symbolism underlying the beliefs of the contemporary Society of Alchemists, in the Book of Now, who believe that humanity can be divided into three groups: lead, pyrite, and gold. Four people out of five are lead, inert and unenlightened. One out of ten are pyrite, shining like gold but actually base and even malevolent — they’re gifted, but use their gifts to mislead and exploit the people of lead. The final one in ten are gold, who don’t use their gifts for themselves alone but try to alchemise the lead folk, to wake them from their dullness, to lead them from their metaphorical dwellings in the Savage Lands and the Swamps of Death into the Golden Fortress. The ten sections of the Book of the Golden Falcon each demonstrate a particular moral theme symbolised by a numeral; each Roman letter also stands for a quality, and the Alchemists derive philosophical lessons by breaking down individual words into their letters and the qualities associated with those letters.
The myth is consciously Africentric — that’s the quality ‘A’ stands for — and the book makes a strong argument that a myth, and the readings of a myth, can’t be extricated from its political and historical context. Certainly this particular myth is shaped by the experience of racism and colonialism. The Book of the Golden Falcon is said to have been originally written in Wolof, a West African language, “possibly” by Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese historian who wrote about the interpenetration of Egyptian and other African cultures; the Alchemists are Black men and women of various extractions, and one way to interpret their use of the myth is as a story in which to situate themselves, contrasting with the Eurocentric narratives of the society around them. In particular, Faust makes it clear that this myth has that resonance for Rap, who says at one point that “to be Africentric I need to remember my ancestors, which is the way to resurrect myself.” He finds a new direction, a new sense of self, from the myth of the Alchemists. And, over the course of the book, we see how that myth helps him grow from youth to young adult.
Faust’s created myth works perfectly for the progression of the novel and the development of his characters. You can see how and why it draws Rap. You can see how it can be read in a nationalistic or exclusionary way, and also how it can be read as a more universal symbol-system: as one of the other young Alchemists observes to Rap, you can easily interpret the lead/pyrite/gold division as a statement that every individual person is composed of those three metals, and as a call for each of us to transform our own lead to gold. Still, you can see how the majority culture would react with fear and suspicion to the myth and the growth of the Alchemists; and you see how the suspicion’s unjust at the same time as recognising that it’s sadly inevitable. You’re not surprised when the Alchemists start to develop enemies. So: the myth works as a framework for the growth of the main character, and as something that drives the plot — as though the story helps to push itself forward.
Faust’s obviously dealing with some highly politically charged material, but I think the book succeeds at using those themes to build a powerful story. He knows his material. He gave the name ‘Kush’ to an Edmonton neighbourhood home to Ethiopian, Eritrean, Sudanese, and Somalian communities; it’s the setting for The Alchemists of Kush, which is his third novel. His first, Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, was also set in Edmonton and followed two Black fans of comics and science fiction who became mixed up with ancient secret societies. It’s still perhaps the only major story (novel, film, or other) I’ve seen about Canadian fans. Published in 2004, it was a finalist for a number of awards (Philip K. Dick, Locus First Novel, Compton-Crook) and has since been reprinted as Coyote Kings Book One: Space-Age Bachelor Pad. Faust’s second book, published in 2007 as From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain and since republished as Shrinking the Heroes, won the Carl Brandon Kindred Award. It manages something I’ve rarely seen done: it successfully mixes satire with super-heroes. Faust published The Alchemists of Kush himself in 2011, and has followed it with a space-opera novel I haven’t read, War & Mir. He’s also published several collections of his short fiction.
(Um. And full disclosure here: I don’t know Faust myself, but I know we have acquaintances in common, including a cousin of mine. And Googling around I found — what I did not know before writing this piece — that Faust wrote a remembrance of my uncle at his passing several years ago. Sometimes Canada’s a very small country that just happens to be spread over thousands of miles.)
(But since I’m opening parentheses, a couple of notes about Shrinking the Heroes before I continue on about The Alchemists of Kush. Like Coyote Kings and Kush, it borrows from Egyptian lore, so that the three books seem like different explorations of the same territory. Certainly the books connect up: Rap remembers reading comics about some of the characters from Shrinking the Heroes. All three books also show the influence of American comics, and make race an important theme while handling the subject both deftly and directly.)
(Shrinking the Heroes isn’t perfect. It presents itself as a ‘case history’ written by a pop psychologist, Eva Brain, describing her analysis of a particular supergroup; Brain’s style is by design trite, filled with ludicrously extended metaphors, and if that sometimes succeeds, it’s also at times cloying, an obstacle between reader and story. But as a whole, the story works because it works as a story, with its own internal logic and consistent universe. And while a super-hero story is being built up, with easily-obvious analogues for Superman and Batman and Spider-Man, there’s also a strong social satire developing. The whole thing feels something like a Steve Gerber story by way of Alan Moore, or Frank Miller from the early 80s. Above all, though, there’s an incredible level of linguistic invention, a ton of concepts and characters and puns. Language is important; the main character has a kind of Green-Lantern-like power fueled by word use, by ink. There as here the transmission of story, the use of words, of narrative, is key. The discovery of a continuity, the myths of heroes, and the uncovering of a truth.)
To get back to speaking directly about The Alchemists of Kush: at first glance the development of the community of Alchemists may seem to come a bit too easily. The young Alchemists appear too quickly and uniformly buy into the myth and all get along. Which is highlighted by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much discussion of the group’s structure or internal political system. There doesn’t appear to be any internal conflict within the group.
But I’m not sure this is accurate. We get the story of the Book of Now from Rap’s viewpoint, which is not impartial. The myth is important to him. Ani, the adult Alchemist who is the de facto leader of the group, is important to him. The community, the myth, are understood through Rap’s perspective. That doesn’t mean that he’s wholly and completely a believer from start to finish. But the tensions he has with Ani and the Alchemists are I think of a different kind, growing pains of a different sort. It’s perhaps not likely that he’d perceive the stresses within the community, and so he doesn’t.
Instead, Rap’s own transformation is the central spine of the story; Hru’s tale, in the Book of Then, functions as an amplification of certain themes, a fantastic recapitulation of what Rap lives. The novel succeeds because Faust nails Rap’s voice: his intelligence, his anger, and how these things transmogrify with the wisdom he gets from the Alchemists. His background is subtly and powerfully brought out as the book goes forward. I thought Faust did a great job of making Rap’s childhood before coming to Canada a part of him without making it the sole defining aspect of who he is; as we find out over the course of the book, Rap went through some harrowing experiences, but while they helped to shape him they’re not the whole of him.
In the end Ani goes the way of most archetypal mentor figures, and Rap remains surrounded by enemies — there are no simple victories here, no easy defeats of real-world troubles — but one senses he has developed a maturity and self-knowledge that will help him face these things in future. As a whole, the book succeeds as a story of boys and men and gods. It deals with violence and anger and love. Above, all with transformation, of the self and the world. These are big subjects, the sort of thing that myth may be particularly well-suited to handle. Faust turns the trick here, making, along the way, a strong argument for the importance of myth and story, showing what they can do, what in fact they must do. What in them is most true.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.