Book Review: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia
For someone who claims to enjoy science fiction, I have read surprisingly few full-length sci-fi books this year. First there was the retro superhero novel. Then there was the space opera. And now we come to another esteemed subgenre within sci-fi: Steampunk.
The Alchemy of Stone has few of the traditional trappings of steampunk – no goggles, no airships, no overwhelming sense of can-do Victorian optimism – but it does have an automaton. Mattie, to be precise: An emancipated automaton who was given independence by her creator, Loharri, after learning the skills of alchemy. This is unusual in that Loharri, as a Mechanic, is politically and spiritually opposed to the work done by the Alchemist’s guild, of which Mattie is now part. The Mechanics and the Alchemists have recently been at odds over the direction that their city’s growth should take (think of the Industrial Revolution), and this dispute has come to a head with dangerous results: Civil war is inevitable.
Mattie doesn’t care for political machinations, though, as she’s been requested to tackle an extremely unusual assignment – the gargoyles, the supernatural founders and protectors of the city, want her to use her alchemical skills to somehow transmogrify their stone bodies to flesh. This is no easy task, and she relies on an unusual network of outcasts to arrive at a solution: The soul of the now-deceased alchemist formerly given this assignment, the soul-smoker who houses that soul within his own flesh, and a refugee alchemist who uses the power of blood to weave her spells.
Out of context, all of these elements – automatons, magic, gargoyles, souls, revolution, etc – sound like an unusual mixture. Unfortunately, they also fail to cohere within the book itself. The most interesting narrative choice is which points of view are used in the story; most of it is told from Mattie’s perspective, but a series of smaller portions set in italics are told from the perspective of the gargoyles themselves, and they speak in first person plural to convey their thoughts as a collective. The gargoyle passages are quite lyrical. However, they feel removed from the main political friction that drives the rest of the narrative forward.
One major problem is that this political friction doesn’t have a sense of urgency. Half-hearted mentions are given to refugees taking jobs from city-dwellers and of people being sent off to nearby mines to die as slave labour, but this never feels fully rooted in the history of the setting. It’s telling that I keep on calling the location of the story itself “the city” instead of a definite name. According to the copy on the back cover, the city’s name is “Ayona” – but I had to rely on the book cover to know that, as I can’t recall the name “Ayona” being mentioned anywhere in the text itself. That should be a warning sign when reading any sort of speculative fiction.
This lack of historical context within the book is odd because in other respects the worldbuilding of The Alchemy of Stone is excellent. In particular, I loved the idea of a “soul-smoker” – the book’s equivalent of what we would call a sin-eater. These are people who go to houses haunted by ghosts, and then lure the ghosts down with a wad of burning opium; when the ghost is tempted down from the rafters by the smoke, the soul-smoker inhales the smoke, ghost and all, through a pipe. The ghost then inhabits the soul-smoker’s body, and can communicate mentally with its new host. Given the abundance of souls within the soul-smoker’s body, living people treat the soul-smoker as a pariah out of fear that prolonged close contact with him or her will cause their own souls to vacate their bodies and join the other souls congregated inside the smoker. As Mattie technically doesn’t have a soul, she has no fear of him, and their relationship provides mutual comfort and support. I would enjoy a book devoted to just the two of them talking together.
It’s Mattie’s relationships with other people in the book that I have more of a problem with. In particular, she falls in love with a secondary character in the novel, a rough and uncouth man she barely knows. This sudden realization of love makes little sense considering their limited contact. Secondly, on at least one occasion when they meet, he attempts to physically assault her and is prevented from doing so only by the sudden intervention of the gargoyles. Finally, their relationship culminates in what has got to be one of the oddest sex scenes I’ve ever read – maybe I’m a prude, or not particularly progressive, but it was weird to read about a human and an automaton consummating a relationship, especially when the latter party doesn’t have… ahem… all of the “parts” required.
This is nothing compared to the troubled relationship Mattie has to her creator, Loharri, however. Although he emancipated her, he refuses to relinquish the final hold he has on her: The small piece of metal used to wind up the cogs and gears in her chest that is – quite literally – the key to her heart.
It turns out that not only does he prevent her from attaining true freedom by keeping the one key that keeps her gears in working order, but he also 1) builds a mechanism in her brain that causes her to undergo system failure if she thinks about consulting him but does not do so, and 2) uses her to spy on her Alchemist colleagues without her knowledge. Their relationship is an unhealthy one in every sense of the word.
There are few other things I could mention about why this book troubles me so, but I’ve gone on long enough. If this is the case, why am I still giving the book 3 stars out of 5? I’m willing to give it a pass because of the quality of the prose and because of its worldbuilding. In other words, it’s got great skin – it just needs a better set of bones.
Up next: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente