The first book I read written and illustrated by Colin Thompson is The Last Alchemist and I have been hooked. It began with the age-old desire of a king in a long-forgotten castle to discover how the simple elements of the earth could be magically/scientifically transformed into gold.
Spinifex was the nineteenth alchemist who was given this near-impossible ‘holy-grail’ quest – and he is to weave simple metals into gold by the Millennium, otherwise he is “finished” as commanded by the King. I like the fact that Spinifex was portrayed like this mad scientist reading gilt-edged tomes of knowledge, spilling chemicals every which way – and essentially being the researcher that he is. It appeals to my geeky-sensibility.
However, he is a poor mentor to his apprentice, Arthur, who is actually infinitely wiser than he is. When tasked by Spinifex to go out into the city and bring real gold back, Arthur brought back sunflowers, egg yolks, canaries, and marigolds. The story ends tragically of course (as all children’s books do) with Spinifex’s death via a golden spill of sunlight that permeates through everything that it touches.
What makes the book unique is its surreal illustrations ala-Hieronymous Bosch. While it does not portray writhing, suffering, naked bestialities like Bosch, it awakens a child’s perception of magical realism and things that are not quite what they seem. The vibrant colors, the seemingly-ceaseless movement, and the uncanny yet brilliant way in which the figures are superimposed against each other in a meaningful way is just … genius. No wonder he has a cult following.
I could not help but wonder how long it takes him to create each page, because each one is a work of art in itself that draws your eyes closely again and again with hues that whisper to your ear and juxtaposition of weird creatures and unlikely objects that speak to your soul’s eye. It also reminds me somewhat of Hayao Miyazake’s animation with the ubiquitous hooded/cloaked sharp-nosed creature. And wonderfully, it reshapes an old story of magic and alchemy, greed and gold, kings and castles to a timeless classic that happens to be a gastronomic visual feast.
Definitely highly recommended for children aged six to twelve years old. This could be perfect as well for art teachers who would like to use the illustrations as examples of how minute details could change the entire perspective of viewing a page in a story book. The colors, the attention to detail, and the meaningful story line make this book a timeless classic for all time.