Book Review: The Alchemy Of Stone – Ekaterina Sedia

The Alchemy Of Stone

The Alchemy Of Stone

This was a surprise gift from my wife over Christmas – I’ve been trying to get a
hold of this book, The Alchemy of Stone, for a little while now, and had some
problems. This third book by Ekaterina Sedia was one that I was really looking
forwards to reading, and it was a fun book to read – While I waited for my
computer to restart, I finished the last 150 pages in about an hour.

The
story follows Mattie, an intelligent automation in a world that is very
steampunkish. Mattie is an alchemist, trying to discover a way to prevent the
gargoyles in the city from turning to stone and dying out. They seem to predate
the human inhabitants of the city, and are responsible for its construction and
character. At the point in the story, the city is overcrowded, and divided.
There’s a political rivalry between the Alchemists and machinists, which spills
over into violence with the Duke of the city and his family is attacked and
killed, culminating in civil war between classes. Mattie is at the center of
this, as an Alchemist, but her creator, whom she is bound to, is a fairly cruel
machinist who will not let her stray too far from needing him.

This was
a fun read, but not as good as I’d hoped it would be. It felt like a quick look
into a vastly complex and interesting world and I didn’t get the depth that I
would have liked, and that easily could have been there. That being said, what I
got was still a very good, engaging read. Where the story is somewhat lacking,
it is made up for with the character of Mattie and the various struggles that
she comes across in the story. Where most people would think of a robotic being
as fairly robust and durable – watching any sort of movie about robots will tell
you this – Mattie is weak, timid, and fragile, both physically and mentally. At
several points, she is easily broken after being attacked, and must be rewound
by her creator in order to function. She is shy, and eager to please her master,
Loharri, while at the same time despising him and yearning to be completely free
from his grasp, which is not possible, as he literally owns the key to her
heart.

There are many themes which run through this book that all
intersect with Mattie, but the dominant one can be considered one of
transitions. The city is changing, physically as there is a boom in construction
and the machinists are taking over, building new things daily, which precipitate
in a sort of political change. Between the Machinists and the Alchemists, there
is a duel nature to Mattie as well, who was built by a machinist, but rejected
that way in life, instead focusing on life. While the exact roles of the
machinists and alchemists in this society aren’t entirely clear, they do bring
up another duality, one of life and death, or fulfillment vs. automation, role
vs. job and emotions vs. logic. There is a class system, we see, as angry coal
workers, forced off their fields by robots, are tasked with mining coal, while
the machinists are content to blindly follow another sentient automation, the
calculator.

This, to me, is an interesting theme, as it relates to
themes that went on during the Renaissance period, a period of much change, but
without the magic and fantasy elements. To some extent, the book has several
issues that are still highly relevant today, if not more so. To what extent is a
culture vibrant and full of life when it overwhelmingly utilizes machines and
devices? At one point, a character that Mattie befriends, Naobi, an outsider,
notes that the people of this city aren’t happy or content, they just exist.
When reading that, I had to wonder how much of that was a sort of social
commentary on today’s society, where the television, computers, mobile phones,
MP3 players are the dominant forms of entertainment and recreation, rather than
something that might be more fulfilling. It’s certainly something that I have
thought about often.

Another dominant theme that the book approaches is
the city’s response to the death of their Duke, where foreigners were rounded
up, harassed and at times, had their souls removed or were threatened as such if
they weren’t cooperative. This was a somewhat chilling, if very unsubtle point
in the book that is extremely relevant in today’s society after 9-11.
Thankfully, this isn’t an overwhelming point in the novel. While it doesn’t
detract from the reading, I always get nervous when any artist, whether it be a
writer, singer or painter, uses their material as a soapbox, for it dates and
lessens the material that they are releasing.

The final big theme of the
book is that of life and death. This is prevalent everywhere, from the
machinists who create life from nothing, to the alchemists who preserve life, to
the soul seeker who seeks to prevent it, while the gargoyles are slowly dying
out. It seems fitting that Mattie, an automation, relates to all of those
fields, while not alive herself, is a conscious being, actively seeking to
preserve the gargoyles who still remain. More ironic, she is unable to remain
alive without her human maker, who holds her fate based on his whims.

This isn’t really a positive book when it comes to tone – it’s dark,
gritty and at times, downright depressing, which came as a real surprise to me,
especially at the end, when things came together. I can’t really remember a book
that has done this, one that really puts the characters into place.

Mattie is the true center of the novel, and is a brilliantly conceived
character from the start, one who is curious, afraid, at times strong, and one
who changes over the course of the story. While she is built, automated, I never
once thought of her as a robot, but as an organic being – at times, I was trying
to imagine her as a robot, and had a hard time doing so, which is absolutely
fantastic, given what type of character she is – this is something that few
authors that I’ve come across have been able to do, turn a machine into a
character that you can really and truly care for, one where you don’t have to
stretch your imagination to imagine her being hurt or having feelings.

At the end of the book, I was happy to have gotten into a book and
finished it in a day. The Alchemy of Stone was a fun read, engaging and
interesting. I’d highly recommend it.

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About peterschow

"the Schow must go on"
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