The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia
CLASSIFICATION: With its intriguing blend of steampunk, gothic romance, political intrigue, and fairy tale spirit — not to mention metaphors on such real world issues as terrorism and racial discrimination — The Alchemy of Stone is like a bizarre, but captivating cross between Frankenstein, Pan’s Labyrinth, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy, Tool’s animated stop-motion music videos, and the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle). Recommended to readers who like their stories fantastical yet relevant, enchanting but surreal, and deep while also fanciful…
FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 304 pages divided over nineteen chapters and an Epilogue. Narration alternates between Mattie’s third-person POV and a plural first-person perspective via the gargoyles. The Alchemy of Stone is a standalone novel although I could see this world being revisited. July 2008 marks the Trade Paperback publication of The Alchemy of Stone via Prime Books. Cover design is by Stephen H. Segal with David Defigueredo providing the artwork.
ANALYSIS: This time last year, I had never even heard of Ekaterina Sedia. Now, she’s a rising star in speculative fiction and I seem to be seeing her name everywhere — the Paper Cities anthology, the Clockwork Phoenix anthology, the much-praised Secret History of Moscow, etc — so I’ve been curious to discover for myself, what all of the excitement was about. Well after reading the author’s third and most recent novel, The Alchemy of Stone, the reasons are pretty obvious.
For starters, Ms. Sedia can write. Specifically her prose, which can be either smooth as silk or hauntingly evocative, is just breathtaking:
We cannot explain this feeling, this stirring, wistful like the smell of linden blooms in the blue moonlit night. We only feel, we feel the absence of love from the stone, from the city, we feel uprooted from our soil. And we seek salvation from all of the unloved children of the world.
Of course there’s more to writing than just prose, but readers needn’t worry. The characters are interesting and likable; dialogue is smart and witty; the plotting is intricate enough to keep readers engaged and guessing at what happens next, yet at the same time is easy to follow; and the novel is excellently paced so that the pages just speed by. I suppose some of the secondary characters like Iolanda, Sebastian and Niobe as well as the story’s steampunk/industrial revolution-setting and such concepts like the Soul-Smoker could have been fleshed out more, but these are minor issues that don’t detract from The Alchemy of Stone’s overall appeal.
Besides the prose, the best thing about The Alchemy of Stone is Ekaterina Sedia’s imagination. For instance, how many novels have ever featured an intelligent automaton as the main protagonist? Mattie doesn’t just think however, she also has emotions and can feel both pleasure and pain, the former of which includes a creative sex scene between her and a human. What’s most fascinating about Mattie though is the way Sedia explores racial discrimination through her emancipation from a house servant into a self-employed alchemist as well as the prejudice she has to deal with; her involvement with Mechanics/Alchemists/rebel politics and her different worldview; and the complex love/hate relationship that she has with her creator, even going so far as plotting against Loharri to steal the key to her heart, which requires constant winding. Then there are the gargoyles, another rarity in speculative fiction — at least for me. In this case, the gargoyles are living creatures, birthed from stone and guardians over the city that they fashioned from their own hands. The problem is that the gargoyles, who speak with a single voice, are rapidly becoming extinct — turning back into the stone from which they were born — and they’ve enlisted the aid of Mattie to discover a solution that will solve their dilemma. Thirdly, we have Ilmarekh the Soul-Smoker, a person who consumes the ghosts of those who linger in the world as well as the souls of criminals, and whose soul will lead the others to their rest & freedom when he dies. What’s interesting about the Soul-Smoker is the fear that he inspires in everyone around him — which is why Mattie is his only friend — and how all of the souls retain their memories and can speak through the Soul-Smoker’s voice. In addition to these three imaginative ideas, there are also Stone Monks, homunculi, blood alchemy, spider miners, the Calculator, and mechanized ‘caterpillar’ vehicles.
CONCLUSION: Last year I read two books by authors who I felt should have been signed to a major publisher. One was Matthew Hughes’ The Spiral of Labyrinth. The other was The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe who has since gone on to ink with Tor Books. Blessed with exquisite prose, an extraordinary imagination, smarts and wonderful storytelling skills, Ekaterina Sedia is without a doubt another author who deserves to be on the payroll of a major publisher. Whether a publisher will be smart enough to recognize Sedia’s talents is another matter. In the meantime, read The Alchemy of Stone, a magnificent tale of change, betrayal and enchantment, and discover for yourself the magic of Ekaterina Sedia.
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