In a kingdom far, far away, in the deep and dark cellars and dungeons of a King's castle, alchemists have been toiling away for centuries to find the secret for turning metals (or anything else) into gold. For centuries, they've failed at this attempt, though in Mr. Thompson's book, "The Last Alchemist", we meet the pop-eyed, withered and completely stressed out Spinifex. Spinifex is the 19th alchemist for the kingdom, and the greedy king has given him until the end of the year to find, FINALLY, the secret for turning metals into gold.
Spinifex sets off on this quest with a passion, doing research in the vast (and completely bizarre) library, cooking up everything he possibly can think of to make gold, all the while bossing around his small apprentice, Arthur. For his own part, Arthur is far more interested in things like sunflowers than smelly potions, and as the story goes on, the reader gets the distinct impression that as Spinifex's experiments build and build up to a gigantic machine, something downright catastrophic is going to happen before the story is over!
The plot and text of "The Last Alchemist" is fun and easy to read, but what will REALLY hook readers are the illustrations. Brightly colored with many shades of almost fluorescent pink, blue, orange and red, the book is a veritable treat for the eyes. On each page fantastically odd things are happening that almost defy explanation. The castle's library, for example, is right out of M.C. Escher's world, with staircases going upside down, sideways, and off into impossible directions. Walking all over these stairs, reading books, hiding in crannies or peeking out of cracks are hooded figures, strange creatures and beady lil' eyes. Doors are on walls which are really floors for other stairs, and many of the books themselves are odd, winged creatures. Teeny little creatures crawl through and around Spinifex's laboratory equipment, bringing the wrinkled and gray Spinifex the strange ingredients for his experiments.
It's hard to think of a close equivalent in illustration style that really gives an accurate picture. The crowded pages of "Where's Waldo?" comes to mind, but Mr. Thompson's illustrations are far more bizarre than anything Waldo had seen. There's a slightly macabre feeling to these pictures, and if I was hard pressed I'd have to say it resembles the album cover of Elton John's 1975 "Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy". There's a certain Monty Python-esque feeling to the illustrations.
I personally LOVE this book, as do both of my children and the students I've shown this to at school. Some kids said that very young children might find it "really weird" because of all the little creatures crawling over the pages or the inanimate objects (books, flasks, lamps, etc) that have legs or eyes. Highly recommended for those interested in a visual tour-de-force!