The Alchemist’s Dream origins


I started writing a story, set in an alternative but entirely viable ancient Persia, sometime after the time of Genghis Khan, but before Timur. It was supposed to be a bleak and melancholy tale of love and loss, echoing against a background of societal collapse and the end of dreams of nationhood. What it turned out to be was a thigh-slapping, hail-fellow-well-met romp, complete with cross-dressing, moustache twirling villains, bumbling heroes, beautiful princesses, wild escapes and gripping sword fights. Certainly more The Princess Bride than Joseph Conrad, so that the title was changed from We Are But Dust to The Alchemist’s Dream.

The plot centres on an unjustly exiled inventor, Abbas (the titular alchemist) and his machinations from afar to gain both justice and revenge against the wicked prince who caused all his woes. And part of his intricate web of intrigue involves a game. A game which, inevitably, several of the characters play during the course of the story, and requires the conduct of the games to be described.

I thought at the earliest stage I could just wing it. Very shortly afterwards, I realised I couldn’t. So I put the writing aside, came up with a board, and an aesthetic, and some rules, and made a prototype. I know that sounds a bit blithe, but I was on an inexplicable creative high at the time, and everything just fell into place. I did discover that my ambition outstripped my woodworking skills, but there were ways around that. But, pretty much from the off, I realised that I hadn’t just managed to cobble together something that would work for the story – my original intention – but something that actually would work and exist outside of it, on its own merits.

Unfortunately for me, the game (at this point, it had no name, either in real life or in the book) was very easy to learn to play – again, something demanded by the story – but very difficult to make. Abbas, the ‘original creator’, is a skilled craftsman and inventor, with access to all kinds of forges and lathes, and because this is storyland, we don’t get to see his struggles. Back in the real world…