fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Alchemist and The Executioness Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias BuckellThe Alchemist and The Executioness by Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias Buckell

The Alchemist and The Executioness caught my eye as soon as it went up at Audible. (Both novellas are now available in print from Subterranean Press.) Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell offering linked fantasy novellas that take place in a shared world? Bacigalupi’s story read by Jonathan Davis? What could be more promising? (It turns out that had I been familiar with Katherine Kellgren, who read Buckell’s story, I would have been even more excited about this one!)

In this shared world, the use of magic causes the growth of bramble, a fast-growing, pervasive, and deadly plant that has taken over cities, making them uninhabitable. Crews of workers must fight back the bramble daily, burning it and collecting its seeds. Magic is forbidden and those who are found using it are executed, yet some citizens are willing to risk their lives if a bit of magic might help them. Who cares if a patch of bramble sprouts in a stranger’s garden if a magic spell might heal their only child?

The Alchemistis about a metal and glass worker who has given up all of his riches and is building an instrument which he hopes will destroy the bramble, restore his fortune, and give him the license to use magic to cure his daughter’s wasting cough. When he presents his invention to the city government, things start to go wrong.

I liked Bacigalupi’s characters — the focused scientist who’s so task-oriented that he misses important social cues and the strong woman whose support is crucial but mostly goes unnoticed — and I enjoyed the laboratory setting because it reminded me of my own frustrating days at “the bench.” It was intriguing to explore the idea that small and secret lawbreaking, even for a good cause, can accumulate to destroy a nation or, as one of Bacigalupi’s characters says: “If we grant individual mercies, we commit collective suicide.” That got me thinking of all sorts of current political, economic, and social parallels.

With The Executioness, Tobias Buckell becomes the hero of middle-aged mothers everywhere. Since I’m now one of those, I loved this story about a mom who loses her family and finds herself. Tana is a desperate woman who just does what any mother would do in the same circumstances. It’s hard for me to imagine becoming a hero, but Tana’s story is completely believable and after hearing it, now I wonder if maybe I could be…

The Executioness was read by Katherine Kellgren, whom I’d never heard before. She was incredible and brought so much personality to Buckell’s protagonist. She sounded lost, distressed, frightened, and brave at just the right times. I already adored Jonathan Davis (I heard him read Fritz Leiber‘s Lankhmar books) and I now have a new favorite in Katherine Kellgren.

I can highly recommend The Alchemist and The Executioness to fantasy lovers of all ages. I wish it had been longer. It’s exclusively available on audio at [later edit: I’m happy to say that these novellas are now available in print from Subterranean Press!]. So far, everything I’ve listened to by Audible Frontiers has been of the highest quality — excellent sound quality, excellent narration, and a large collection of superior fantasy works.

The Alchemist and The Executioness — (2010) Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias Buckell. Publisher: Magic has a price. But someone else will pay. Every time a spell is cast, a bit of bramble sprouts, sending up tangling vines, bloody thorns, and threatening a poisonous sleep. It sprouts in tilled fields and in neighbors’ roof beams, thrusts up from between street cobbles, and bursts forth from sacks of powdered spice. A bit of magic, and bramble follows. A little at first, and then more — until whole cities are dragged down under tangling vines and empires lie dead, ruins choked by bramble forest. Monuments to people who loved magic too much. In paired novellas, award-winning authors Tobias Buckell and Paolo Bacigalupi explore a shared world where magic is forbidden and its use is rewarded with the axe. A world of glittering memories and a desperate present, where everyone uses a little magic, and someone else always pays the price. Magic has a price. In Khaim, that price is your head if you’re found using it. For the use of magic comes with a side effect: it creates bramble. The bramble is a creeping, choking menace that has covered majestic ancient cities, and felled civilizations. In order to prevent the spread of the bramble, many lose their heads to the cloaked executioners of Khaim. Tana is one of these executioners, taking the job over from her ailing father in secret, desperate to keep her family from starvation. But now her family has been captured by raiders, and taken to a foreign city. So Khaim’s only female executioner begins a quest to bring her family back together. A bloody quest that will change lives, cities, and even an entire land, forever. A quest that will create the legend of The Executioness.


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.